SNCC 50th Anniversary, Raleigh, NC

My name is Danny Lyon.

In the summer of 1962 I hitch hiked to Cairo Illinois where I met John Lewis, and saw and photographed my first demonstrations. Within days I reached Albany, Georgia where I met James Forman. When Forman understood that I had come from Chicago to photograph the Movement, he sent me into the court house to photograph the segregated drinking fountains. SNCC workers also arranged to get arrested on my behalf. Within days I was in jail.

During the next two years, until the fall of 1964 I would shoot approximately 150 rolls of mostly 35mm B&W film, usually Tri-X, often bulk film, which I could purchase in rolls and load myself at the cost of about one dollar per roll. I developed most of this film myself, eventually bringing my own dark room equipment to Atlanta and setting it up in the bathroom of the SNCC office on Raymond Avenue and later in an apartment in Atlanta.

In September of 1962, with the encouragement of Forman and $300 put up by Harry Belafonte I appeared in the Mississippi Delta, where I met Charlie Cobb, and Frank Smith, who suggested I wear a cowboy hat, “so I would look like a cracker”. Soon after being threatened by the local police I fled.

In June of 1963 I moved to Atlanta where I became the SNCC staff photographer. Forman sent me where ever the action was. I had an air travel credit card, and received a salary from SNCC. Having a full time staff photographer for an activist organization was unprecedented at that time. It is a model that has been widely copied by all activist organizations and many non-profits to this day.

Two generations have now passed since these pictures were made. SNCC and the Movement have passed into history. The photographs I made have proved to be among the most enduring evidence of SNCC. There are shown in Museums throughout the country, and few books or films on the movement appear that do not use at least some of them. Today there is a set of forty eight Knowledge Cards published by the Library of Congress that are for sale in the gift shop of the Lincoln Memorial. In them are fifty portraits of figures from the Movement. I made four of these photographs, and a picture of me is on a fifth card. It is my proudest achievement.

Because SNCC was a revolutionary organization it morphed and could not survive. Its first full time paid staff member was Jane Stembridge, a white lesbian. When I reached Albany it had a staff of thirty field workers. The period I photographed was its golden age. . That summer of 1963, fifteen thousand people were arrested in non-violent protests in the south. It was the high water mark of the Movement.

SNCC was too revolutionary, too dynamic, too effective and too pure to survive. That is as it should be. On the question of the difference between history and reality I leave you with this story.

Two years ago I was with John Lewis in Denver, riding in a large SUV towards the heavily guarded Convention center that would nominate Obama as the Democratic candidate for President. John and I had been roommates in Atlanta. Changing planes in Ohio, I turned to another congressman and said that in Denver I would be staying with John Lewis.
“You know what they call him?” He said. “They call him The Legend!”

Now I was riding with John in the SUV and outside through the window I could see some demonstrators that had spent the night sleeping on the ground. They couldn’t possibly get near the heavily guarded convention center. They were ragged and unkempt, carrying sleeping bags, and trudging along holding some small, almost pathetic signs of protest.

“Look John” I said, “Look at those kids. That’s us. That’s what we used to be”.

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