Skip to content

Behind the Photo – Billy E. Barnes

March 13, 2009

The Story Behind the Photo – Civil Rights Pictures – Billy E. Barnes

In a series of forthcoming interviews with photographers, Behind the Photo aims to explore the often unheard stories that go along with some of PhotoEdit’s best multi-ethnic photos. Our second interviewee, Billy E. Barnes, has been involved in the photography industry for over 50 years and specializes in historical photos and lifestyle imagery. Here he discusses one of his most famous civil rights photos from the 1960s and the experience of being a part of history.

Historical black and white photo of two black young men leading a peaceful march the day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Durham, North Carolina

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the morning of April 4, 1968. By the afternoon of that day, major portions of Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and other cities were on fire. That evening, at a church in the heart of Durham, North Carolina’s black community, a large group of people met. The firebrands among them proposed violent revenge. Howard Fuller rose and told the crowd that such a strategy would be a betrayal of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and philosophy.

Fuller proposed that the people hold a peaceful march through the city of Durham, larger than any before seen in the city. He promised to lead the march and recruit North Carolina Central University football team members to serve as marshals and keep the march orderly so that the police would not feel a need to get involved.

The next day, there was a large gathering at a vacant lot at “Five Points,” on the western end of downtown, where Main and Chapel Hill streets converge. After speeches, prayers, and singing, the crowd walked single file all the way down Chapel Hill Street and over to the Hayti black business section of town. In this photograph, Fuller and one of the marshals are in the vicinity of the old Belk building and the Central Carolina Bank building.

When I look at this picture, I think of Fuller, the sadness of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder, and the forlorn column of African-Americans who marched down the sidewalks of Durham that day. The marchers were still in shock from the events of the day before. They were somber, sad, very dignified, and a little scared about what might happen to them if things went wrong with the march.

I was stationed about half a block from the gathering place. I began shooting as Fuller approached, then I ran a half-block ahead to have another go at the situation. I was well aware of the drama of the moment and did not want to blow it. I did not want to use a long lens because I wanted good depth of field in all of the elements: Fuller, the long column of marchers, the police, the streets shiny from an earlier rain, and store fronts that established the location. I managed to capture all of the elements, through the blessings of experience, empathy, and a lot of luck.

Some months later, I asked Fuller, a long-time friend, to comment on the pained expression on his face. He told me that he well remembered that instant: he had spotted the silhouettes of two rifle-armed men standing atop the multi-story Belk Department Store building across the street. For a moment he could not be sure whether they were policemen or possibly Ku Klux Klan snipers. Being responsible for the safety of the throng of marchers, it was intensely stressful for him to see the armed men. But as the march continued, he was relieved to see that they were, in fact, uniformed Durham police officers.

The marchers seemed kind of numb from the sorrow and drama of it all. I am a very ordinary-sized person with an ordinary face. I did not carry a huge camera bag. No tripod, no flash gun. There was nothing flashy about my mode of dress. The marchers showed no sign of even knowing I was there. That is a large part of the secret of successful people photography. In those days, I used a Nikon FA camera, and in this case, a 52 mm Nikkor lens. Film in moving situations was always Kodak TRI-X rated at 400 ASA.

At the time, I was directly affiliated with neither an agent nor a periodical publication, so there was no news use of the image. However, since then this image has been published dozens of times in books, magazines and newspapers, and one-time rights have been sold to documentary film producers as well. Also, the image has sold repeatedly for use as wall art; right now it hangs in two commercial galleries and the prints continue to sell.


This concludes the second edition of Behind the Photo, featuring Billy E. Barnes and his civil rights photo. If you would like to see more collections of civil rights pictures and related galleries, please use the links below:

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: