Powerful photographs helped change the tide of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. Some of these very photos moved author Elizabeth Partridge (goddaughter of the influential photographer Dorothea Lange) when she saw them 40 years later. Consider the role that photographs, books, and interviews play in historical research as Partridge discusses her process of selecting viable sources for Marching for Freedom: Walk Together Children and Don’t You Grow Weary (Penguin 2009).
A Passion for Pictures
This book started when I came across a group of photographs online by a man named Matt Herron. These were photos of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March for the Vote led by Martin Luther King, Jr. I just instantly fell in love with his photographs. I wanted to touch them. I wanted to pour over them. I wanted to see more of them. Mostly, I wanted to make a book with them so I could share them with other people.
Primary and Secondary Sources
I plunged into reading everything I could get my hands on about The March. Pretty soon I had a pretty good overview. Matt let me come to his house and look at all his photographs he had in his archive. I was very happy. I started tracking down more photographs by other photographers.
Then I went back to my secondary sources I’d already read and I checked the source notes and the references in those books to find the primary sources that they had used. That’s where I started to feel like the rubber met the road. When I get a hold of primary sources, I’m very excited.
As I did all this research and looked in all these photographs, I realized kids and teenagers had been critical to the success of this March. Right there, hidden in plain site, was the story of how kids had endured being jailed, being beaten—and they’d gotten up every morning and gone out again. Day after day these kids were marching and being thrown in jail.
So I flew to Selma and I interviewed people who had been kids and teenagers on The March. Their memories were so vivid. This had been a huge, huge turning point in their lives, and they were able to recount so vividly for me what their experiences were. I took the narratives by these kids, and I wrapped my story around their interviews because they were just so precious, and then I managed to squeeze over 50 photographs by all different photographers into this book.
Activities for encouraging inquiry using archival photography:
Find a historical photograph of your school, family, or community that intrigues you. Write a list of questions that the photo inspired.
Gather photographs that inspire or have personal meaning to you, and write a story based on sentiments you see in them.
Read the footnotes and bibliography of a book with archival photographs, and follow some of the citations back to the primary source. Were they accurate?
Consider the role that young people play in changing society. Write an essay about a social movement in which young people were integral to its success, and integrate photographs. How does adding photos add to or detract from your essay and writing process?
This post was originally published as an article in Carin Bringelson and Nick Glass’ monthly column for School Library Monthly.
Susan Smith says
This article explains historical research so thoroughly that even a high school student can follow it. The process is one that we, as librarians, always hope to inspire our students to follow, but rarely do we actually see anywhere near the thoroughness Ms. Partridge displays here. I plan to use this article to demonstrate the proper procedures for getting back to primary sources and creating good historical writing.
Thank you for making it so clear to us.
Carin Bringelson says
Thanks, Susan, for your kind words. I hope you’ve seen the other “Insights” articles, too. They are at http://forum.teachingbooks.net/?cat=72 and offer other “research and writing” perspectives.
Also, I really enjoyed Ms. Partridge’s guest blog post, which is at: http://forum.teachingbooks.net/?p=2243