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June 27, 1963
Guest post by Mark Speltz, author of North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography Beyond the South (J. Paul Getty Museum, 2016).
On June 27, 1963, the Los Angeles Sentinel reported that police arrested twenty-three protesters staging a sit-in against housing discrimination in Torrance, California. The 2:00 a.m. raid and arrests ended a twelve-hour long demonstration at a sales office in a sprawling greater Los Angeles housing development with a discriminatory “sales policy which excludes Negroes, Mexican-Americans, and Orientals.”
For decades Los Angeles’s swelling black population struggled against myriad forms of discrimination, including workplace biases and unequal and underfunded schools, but housing discrimination proved especially pervasive. Families hoping to secure housing beyond crowded and largely segregated neighborhoods were not welcome in new developments like the Southwood Riveria tract the Los Angeles chapter of CORE targeted with its protests.
The Sentinel’s coverage of the demonstration included a news picture of Torrance police officers carrying activists to a paddy wagon. The photograph, which documents only a split-second of the evening’s action, suggests the arrests were orderly and free of violence, but activists “reported manhandling by Torrance police and the nine women arrested stated they were subjected to indignities. The last woman from the tract reported that one policeman grabbed her by the hair while another pulled her ear and they slammed her into the paddy wagon head first.”
The inclusion of the early morning photograph, which was credited to Charles Brittin, underscores the critical roles activist photographers played during the struggle. As an active member of CORE, Brittin combined his artistic sensibilities and concern for social justice by serving as the group’s photographer. Pictures by Brittin and scores of others nationwide were used in brochures, leaflets, and fundraising materials and shared with news outlets including newspapers and publications covering local and national campaigns.
Equally important, the mere presence of dedicated movement photographers, whether in the wee hours of the morning or at a daylight demonstration, offered activists an added degree of protection. Photographers could not singlehandedly prevent, or always successfully document, instances of violence, but their pictures repeatedly influenced public opinion by illuminating aggression and injustice during the long black freedom struggle.
For those interested in learning more about Charles Brittin and his wide-ranging photographic work, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles provides access to his papers and photographic work. More information is available here.
Also, a series of interviews with the photographer that were recently made available online can be found here.