Standing in breathing distance of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial more than 50 years ago, history unfolded in front of photographer Bob Adelman.
Adelman, a chronicler of the civil rights movement and of American life, died Saturday at his Miami Beach home. He was 85.
Adelman’s genius was in capturing history, displaying its images and getting cultural and political figures to take notice.
One of those key figures was King, the preacher who called for a March on Washington to protest injustices toward blacks.
The civil rights leader and the photographer bonded prior to the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, in which King delivered his famous oratory, “I Have a Dream.” King considered Adelman a confidante whose talents could propel the movement into people’s living rooms. To Adelman, a New York-born son of liberal Eastern European immigrants, King was close enough to answer to a nickname Adelman gave him, “Doc.”
Months before the march, where Adelman’s frame of King reaching his right hand to the heavens at the close of his speech became a dominant image of the event, “Doc” King and Adelman, a volunteer with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), found themselves in Birmingham, Alabama.
Click here to read Bob Adelman’s recollections on the Selma-to-Montgomery March that changed history in a 2015 Miami Herald story.
The pair were there in May 1963 for a Southern Christian Leadership Conference to bring attention to the racial discord in that city, which culminated four months later in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that left four black girls dead.
Adelman photographed police blasting demonstrators with fire hoses. King told his horrified pal not to interfere on behalf of the victims.
Do what you do, “Doc” advised the photographer. Shoot. And shoot some more.
“He said, ‘We need the pictures,’ because it was the photographs and movies that showed what segregation meant,” Adelman reflected from his Miami Beach home on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for a Miami Herald feature in 2013.
President John F. Kennedy saw the images of young black demonstrators under attack and announced he would propose legislation. “So for us it was both a celebration that race and the end of segregation were on the agenda, and a protest because it was far from clear that Congress was going to pass the legislation,” Adelman told the Herald.
John Due, a leader in the civil rights movement in Miami with his wife, the late Patricia Due, worked alongside Adelman in those years and maintained a relationship with the photographer through the decades.
‘We need the pictures,’ because it was the photographs and movies that showed what segregation meant
Bob Adelman, on Martin Luther King’s advice to him, when he recoiled at seeing Birmingham police blasting protesters with fire hoses
“He was critical throughout the movement,” Due, 81, said Monday from his home in Quincy, Florida. “The march in Washington, he was right there. [Patricia] was talking about how critical his talents were for documenting the movement through photography.”
Due chuckled as memories poured in of the idealistic philosophy major turned photographer who witnessed acts of human cruelty, beauty and everything in between, yet never lost his sense of humor.
Due said his wife referred to meeting him in her book Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights (One World/Ballantine), which she wrote with her daughter Tananarive Due, a novelist and former Miami Herald features writer. In the passage, she described how she met Adelman at a Miami Beach restaurant and became involved with CORE from that meeting.
“The rest of it is history,” Due said.
The book’s cover photo is by Adelman.
Adelman, born and raised in Long Island, earned his master’s in philosophy from Columbia University. “He picked up photography fairly late in a sense,” said Peter Boswell, who curated 160 of Adelman’s photographs for the exhibit, The Movement: Bob Adelman and Civil Rights Era Photography, at NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale in 2013.
“He was an intellectual starting out but was very socially committed and I think it was the confluence of his interest in philosophy and this growing civil rights movement that really got him to commit fully to photography,” Boswell said. “He had trained with an art director for Harper’s Bazaar, Alexey Brodovitch, as an assistant and learned a lot about photography that way.”
His first photographs were of the air vents on the roof of his New York apartment building. “I really liked their shape,” he said. He also liked the female shape. “I was full of energy and I was busy seducing young women, but I was also desperately looking for something to do in the real world,” he told the Miami Herald in 2010.
Other Adelman images through the years: a photograph of pop artist Andy Warhol pushing a cart of soup cans and boxes of Brillo in a dingy Manhattan supermarket. Artist Roy Lichtenstein in his studio. King’s funeral in 1968. Adelman’s photos graced the covers of Time, Newsweek, People, Life, Look, Paris Match and The New York Times Magazine.
Boswell was “blown away” by the images Adelman showed at a lecture he had given at the Galbut Family Miami Beach JCC and made an appointment to visit the photographer at his Miami Beach apartment to go over images for the Fort Lauderdale exhibit. The meeting turned into a friendship.
“Part of being a successful photographer, especially a documentarian, is being in the right place at the right time. Bob got interested in the whole civil rights movement in a fairly early stage while living in New York and starting to work for CORE. He gained the trust of people he knew —Martin Luther King, John Lewis. That gave him a certain access that was very important,” Boswell said.
Adelman moved to Miami Beach from New York in 1999 after the death of his friend, pop artist Lichtenstein.
“In New York, I couldn’t think,” he told the Miami Herald in 2010. Miami Beach gave him some anonymity to conduct his work — late in life he was the project manager for the paperback edition of The Great LIFE Photographers. He collaborated with Lewis, 76, on a book about King. Lewis is the only person who spoke at the March on Washington who is still alive and today is a U.S. representative from Georgia.
“What really struck me about Bob was his really deep commitment to social justice and to representing outsiders,” Boswell said. “But the other thing that struck me was he was incredibly intelligent … and had a fabulous sense of humor. He just had to laugh. He would turn everything into a joke.”
Adelman is survived by his daughter Samantha Joy Reay, three grandchildren and his sister Dolores Feldman.