Civil Rights Photos At The Frist Show How Nashville Media Took Sides | Nashville Public Radio

Civil Rights Photos At The Frist Show How Nashville Media Took Sides

May 1, 2018

Some of the closest witnesses to the Nashville Civil Rights movement were photographers from the city's two major newspapers at the time, The Tennessean and the Nashville Banner. A selection of their photos — and the Frist Art Museum's latest exhibit that displays them — offer a glimpse into how media outlets chose to cover the events.

After a bomb exploded at the home of prominent black attorney Alexander Looby in 1960, Civil Rights leaders organized a silent march from North Nashville to downtown — an event captured on camera by Tennessean photographer Jack Corn.

Corn recalls dashing ahead of the march to capture the iconic shot of Fisk student Diane Nash in the middle of the front row. He would cover various Civil Rights marches, protests and clashes for the next several years.

"I don't sit back and let someone else do the big story of the day. That was the biggest story of the day, and I wanted to be there."

Despite the drama of the photos, photographers didn't relish the assignments, Corn remembers.

"I mean, you going somewhere and you know people are going to try to punch you out. It's scary. If you were human, it wasn't fun."

John Lewis, right, stands inside the Krystal restaurant on Fifth Avenue in 1960 while a dense cloud of insect spray filled it. The manager had turned on a fumigating machine to disrupt their sit-in.
Credit Jack Corn / Courtesy of the Frist and the Tennessean

But as scary as it was for the photographers, it was certainly more tumultuous for the protesters themselves. One photo from the Nashville Banner shows white men pulling a black student off a stool during a sit-in. Another, from The Tennessean, captures police dragging away a protester.

Curator Katie Delmez chose 50 pictures — from 1957, school desegregation in Nashville, to 1968, the wake of King's assassination. She says she wanted to include parts of history that show the negative aspects of Nashville at the time.

"I think Nashville thinks of itself as being a very progressive place where the Civil Rights movement was very civil here, and on the one hand it was, but there were some dark moments too," she says.

Delmez also found it interesting how photographers from the two papers covered the events differently. The Tennessean was unabashedly liberal, led by outspoken Civil Rights supporter John Seigenthaler. Its journalists were more sympathetic to the movement.

The now-defunct Nashville Banner tended to focus more on the violence of the events — if it covered them at all. Current Tennessean photographer Larry McCormack, who served as an advisor for the Frist exhibit, says many Banner photos, including many that are in the exhibit, were never actually published.

"A lot of these were turned over to the police so they could identify who was in the crowd," he says. "This was Nashville in 1960-something."

The National Guard was called out in anticipation of unrest in North Nashville, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968.
Credit Bob Ray / Courtesy of the Frist and the Nashville Public Library

Looking back, it's easy to see these photos as impartial historic snapshots. But at the time, the battles over desegregation and Civil Rights were so fierce that even a photograph could be used as a tool to sway public opinion.

The exhibit "We Shall Overcome" is on display in the Frist Art Museum's free community arts gallery through mid-October.