An Interview with 'North of Dixie' author Mark Speltz

The Northern civil rights struggle, in images and words

Dec. 19, 2016
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North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography Beyond the South, the new book from Mark Speltz and Getty Publications, is perhaps the most powerful history book with local ties of the season. With over 100 photographs (many never-before published) and a series of thoughtful essays, North of Dixie both memorializes the often over-looked struggle for equality in the northern United States and presents the region’s white opposition to such progress in pictures that are just as raw and hateful as anything from the peak of the Jim Crow South. A Madison resident and UW-Milwaukee alum, Speltz devotes a good deal of space in the book to Milwaukee. Recently, Speltz was kind enough to talk with What Made Milwaukee Famous about the long Civil Rights Movement, the gaps in education on the movement, and how the points of view in North of Dixie’s photos are not always what they seem.

The idea for this book originated while you were here in Milwaukee. Tell us about that.

The kernel that would become this book began in a photography and visual culture course while I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 2007 marked the 40th anniversary of the Milwaukee marches for open housing and a massive public history project was underway. I became fascinated with the city’s contested struggles against housing desegregation, unequal schools and police surveillance, and over the next few years, searched out all of the local photographic documentation I could find. I spoke to award-winning photojournalists, members of the black press, and former NAACP Youth Council members who were active or documented the struggles then. Yet, when I began paging through the most popular Civil Rights movement photography books and exhibition catalogs in search of images beyond the South to use for comparison, I couldn’t find many. It was clear there was a gap in the visual narrative of the movement. 

Why has the story of the Civil Rights struggle in the north been so poorly taught (or not taught at all) in schools and colleges?

Very few schoolchildren learn about the broad Civil Rights movement beyond the South while in school. The standard Civil Rights narrative Americans celebrate today in textbooks and popular books and film is illustrated with a familiar set of iconic images. The pictures accompany a heartwarming story of heroic nonviolence overcoming southern racism, which stems in part from the heavy southern focus of the national media during the Civil Rights era. The southern images, then and now, fit a predictable storyline. It was easier to shift the blame and focus on racial issues in the South, despite overwhelming evidence of racial discrimination nationwide. North of Dixie makes clear that most blacks did not find the North—especially cities like Milwaukee—to be a promised land and illustrates how they challenged the nation to live up to its ideals. 

Civil Rights history is often taught in the past tense, like it happened long ago. Campaigns against segregation and for voting rights in the deep South are incredibly important, but equally inspiring Civil Rights battles waged by ordinary Americans in the North and West are largely forgotten. Looking beyond the heroic and feel good, sanitized versions of Dr. King and Rosa Parks helps young Americans today that youth just like them did not wait for national leaders to come to town. They worked for change in ways both big and small.  

This is by no means a new story, college professors and Civil Rights scholars have been churning out powerful work about the long black freedom struggle from coast to coast. Yet, our textbooks – and popular culture – tends to fall back on an important, but well-worn tale that fails to relate the more expansive and inspiring story.

A young woman raising her fist in a show of pride and determination during an open-housing march through the streets of Chicago. Photo by: Declan Haun, Chicago, IL 1966. Chicago History Museum, ICHi-35427.

Some of the most powerful images in the book are those taken by the police and other authorities. In putting the book together, how did knowing from what point of view the image was taken, both physically and mentally, affect how you saw and wrote about the image?

Milwaukee’s NAACP Youth Council was tracked, monitored, and photographed often by the city’s police. Though some of the photography was practical, many of the youth found the constant attention and surveillance oppressive. Police photographers documented Father Groppi, activists, and students from St. Boniface attending Common Council hearings. The use of cameras to track, document, and intimidate was not limited to Milwaukee and that angle, or view, of the Civil Rights struggle intrigued me. 

Understanding how and why police departments, the FBI, and other agencies used the camera as a weapon against the movement is critically important.  Resistance to Civil Rights activities—from nonviolent marches to confrontational actions designed to call attention to long-festering issues—took on many forms over the decades.  Photography, infiltration, and brutal repression of activism impacted the arc and success of local campaigns nationwide.

It is strange (and sad) that as we approach 2017, particularly Inauguration Day 2017, that the effects of the acts of discrimination and hostility depicted in this book are still so incredibly relevant. What do you want people to take away from this book - and the larger story of the Civil Rights struggle in the north - that could help the country to heal as we move forward?

I don’t know that North of Dixie will help the country heal after a divisive election, but I do hope it inspires youth. By looking past the iconic imagery associated with well-known locations—such as Little Rock, Birmingham, and Selma—and the most charismatic movement leaders, readers are better able to identify and appreciate grassroots movements that were conceived of, built by, and waged locally by ordinary Americans. Local communities waged battles against—and continue to challenge—myriad forms of discrimination and inequality and current events suggest many will have double down to prevent further rollbacks of critical gains.  

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