Birmingham

Bill Hudson, who died yesterday was an AP photographer who covered the civil rights movement. Hudson was in Birmingham, Alabama when police turned their dogs on demonstrators who defied a city ban on protests and again in Selma, when the choice of weapon was fire hoses. Like many other iconographers of the era, he documented police brutality and helped galvanize the public, both domestically and internationally.

The most famous of Hudson’s photos was taken in Birmingham on May 3, 1963, it seemingly showed a police dog attacking a young protestor. The officer’s dark sunglasses, his clenched teeth. his grabbing the youth by his sweater as he lets a police dog bury its teeth into the youth’s stomach, and the youth’s passive, lowering of eyes seems to suggest that totalitarian state has finally come to America. The New York Times published the photo across three columns above the fold the next day.

Like so many other photos on the blog, the image, however, has a complicated backstory. The youth was a high school senior Walter Gadsden; he was not even a protestor but merely a bystander. The officer was Dick Middleton, a mild-mannered policeman, who arrested Gadsden earlier for refusing an order to leave the street. Yet unlike others photos, some information in the photo; either the audience is distracted by other visual cues (dark sunglasses, absence of Gadsden’s look) or it just chose to ignore the inconvenient facts that didn’t fit the narrative of a peaceful protest.

Gadsden had his gaze lowered not because of passivity, but because the gaze was on the dog, whom he would subsequently attack. Middleton was not setting his dog on Gadsden but separating the dog away from Gadsden. Hudson’s photo captures the moment as Gadsden plunges his left knee into the dog’s throat. Gadsden also was seen clenching Middleton’s hand in an apparently defiant gesture. In addition, almost tranquil nature of people in the background suggests that this was neither the centre of the protest nor the scene of widespread police brutality.

This is not to suggest that the police brutality didn’t happen in Birmingham. But with Hudson’s death yesterday, we will never know what exactly the photo shows. The image, which merely showed two unruly dogs, was an icon for an event it may not represent.