As the events of recent weeks and months have shown, protest isn’t dead.
Still, it’s unsettling just how relevant Madison historian Mark Speltz’s new book, “North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography Beyond the South,” seems today. Published by Getty Publications, the book features photos taken from 1938 to 1975 in more than 25 cities — cities outside the Deep South — where demonstrators took to the streets to claim their rights in a deeply divided America.
Witnessing their outrage and courage were photographers pro and amateur, whose collective works helped bring these actions to the attention of a larger American public.
Speltz gathered the 100 photos in “North of Dixie” from “museums, historical societies, the Library of Congress, newspapers (and) the photographers themselves,” he explained in a recent interview.
The collection shows how the civil rights movement of the 20th century did not take place just in the South. Change was being demanded across the country, often in places where racism was more subtle and systemic. And it was mostly ordinary people who were demanding that change.
Speltz, who previously co-authored the Wisconsin-centric books “Bottoms Up: A Toast to Wisconsin’s Historic Bars and Breweries” and “Fill’er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations” with Jim Draeger, started the research for “North of Dixie” while working on a master’s degree in history nearly a decade ago at UW-Milwaukee.
Speltz studies eras in American history as part of his job as senior historian for American Girl in Middleton. Yet he was struck by how little he knew about the civil rights movement in Milwaukee and elsewhere in the North, he said.
Born in 1974 and raised in the Twin Cities, “I grew up after the civil rights era,” said Speltz, 42. “I really learned about the civil rights movement like any kid today — through photographs, through documentaries, through memoirs and autobiographies, online media and now textbooks in schools.
“And those sources tell a very common narrative: That the civil rights movement was fought in the South” by the likes of iconic figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks, he said.
“I just realized there was a need for a book like this, to look past the most iconic photographs to see what else was out there.”
Many of the photo subjects in “North of Dixie” are everyday citizens, such as the well-dressed NAACP members in 1955 San Francisco urging a boycott of Yellow Cab because of hiring discrimination. Or the young boy picketing outside a New Jersey school in 1962 to protest school segregation.
Speltz gives the images context in a measured, yet eye-opening, 18-page introduction to “North of Dixie” that documents the sort of barriers faced by African Americans as they migrated north between 1910 and the 1970s: De facto housing segregation, school segregation, loan discrimination from banks, redlining, workplace segregation, police brutality, and the shattering of communities through “urban renewal” projects.
As one citizen told Life magazine in a 1957 passage quoted by Speltz, after a decade living in the North, “I tell myself all the time it’s better than Mississippi, but I am not always sure.”
“North of Dixie” closes with an epilogue featuring a contemporary Twitter image from activist DeRay Mckesson. Mckesson’s tweet, sent in 2014, includes a photo taken during a protest of the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
It’s an example, Spelt writes, of how “cameras and activist photography remain especially relevant today” thanks to social media and instantaneous image sharing.
“North of Dixie” has drawn interest from the Lens Blog, the photojournalism blog of the New York Times, The Daily Beast, and other publications. When Speltz has done book talks at the Wisconsin Book Festival and elsewhere, it’s not been unusual for people to show up with their own photos from the civil rights movement, he said.
Over the next three months, Speltz is scheduled to discuss “North of Dixie” at signings in Chicago, New York, Middleton and Madison.
“I think protest is an incredibly important part of American history, and it’s essential to democracy to spread your message, to voice your concern, then also to be able to share it,” he said.
“I think the book is even more relevant (today) in showing that nationwide, people chose to protest against inequality in their community. And it wasn’t the most charismatic male leaders leading the way, it wasn’t just Dr. King.
“If you were going to wait for Dr. King to show up, or somebody like him, to fix the situation, you were going to be waiting for a long time,” Speltz said. “The movement was built and fought by ordinary Americans — men, women and young children — and the next movement will be fought by the same people.”