It took a riot to get Roy DeCarava on the cover of Newsweek magazine. And that's no joke.
DeCarava wasn't throwing stones. He was a photographer -- a great one. By 1964, when Newsweek hired him for the first time, he had already established himself as one of America's most important photographers. His photos had been part of the famous Family of Man exhibition. He had been awarded a prestigious Guggenheim grant. His work was part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art. He and the poet Langston Hughes had published an acclaimed book, The Sweet Flypaper of Life.
But he was black, which meant that Newsweek and other white-owned magazines simply wouldn't give him an assignment. The magazine industry had its token African American photographer -- Gordon Parks -- and, for them, that was enough. Black photographers responded to discrimination by, among other things, forming collectives, such as the Kamoinge Workshop.
Then ordinary people in Harlem rebelled.
Newsweek, 3 August 1964. Photo: Roy DeCarava.
It was the first of the "long hot summers," the urban uprisings of the 1960s. Across the country, black youth rebelled against the racism that shaped their lives. Often the spark was a police assault on an African-American citizen.
That was the case in Harlem. An off-duty policeman shot and killed a 15-year-old black teenager in a mostly-white section of the city. Protests in Harlem, demanding that the policeman be charged with murder, erupted into violence when police confronted the crowd.
Newsweek's highly sensationalized story describing the events dominated the issue of 3 August 1964. The magazine's editors needed a strong photo for the cover, but the white photographers that it relied on were afraid to go uptown. What to do?
Louis Draper, one the Kamoinge Workshop's founding members, takes up the story.
Reluctantly, Newsweek hired Roy DeCarava. They had never given him a job before, but now they said he could come do some pictures. They needed a cover. Roy knew that we would do it for him. He asked us to sit and look angry for him. We were having a ball. It was a hot, muggy day, and we were kidding around until the white art director chided, "You boys don't look angry enough." We got pissed and Roy got his picture.
Newsweek's faces of hatred were, in fact, a bunch of photographers -- all Kamoinge members -- having a good time. That is, until the art director called them "boys." Left to right in the photo above, they are Shawn Walker, Ray Francis, and Draper.
The story doesn't end there. Soon afterward, as Draper told a seminar at New York University, in 1995,
[R]epresentatives of the Kamoinge membership were present at an ASMP [American Society of Magazine Photographers] meeting to state our concern about media hiring practices which we felt were discriminatory. An equal concern we had was over the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of African-Americans in magazines. We lodged a strong protest (to ASMP members about these issues). Essentially nothing resulted from it.
Thanks to the victories of the civil rights movement, opportunites for black photographers began to slowly open up in the late '60s. DeCarava, for instance, spent a few years shooting for Sports Illustrated. It wasn't a match made in heaven, but it showed that things were changing. You can see one of his covers, here.
* * *
* * *
Many thanks to Gordon Stettinius and Amy Ritchie of Candela Books and Gallery for granting me access to Louis Draper's archive.