Charles Moore dies at 79; photojournalist's work brought national attention to civil rights movement
The Alabama native was at the center of unrest in the South, taking emotional and often distressing images of protests, integration efforts and Martin Luther King Jr. for Life magazine.
Montgomery, Ala., 1958: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is sprawled across the booking desk at a police station as his stunned wife, Coretta, looks on. He was arrested for loitering at the Montgomery Courthouse and released when his identity became known to the police. (Charles Moore / Black Star)
Moore died Thursday of natural causes at a nursing home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., said his daughter Michelle Moore Peel.
From 1958 to 1965, he trained his lens on the unfolding drama of civil rights as a news photographer for the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser and Life magazine.
His shockingly graphic images -- of police dogs attacking protesters or marchers being assaulted by powerful water hoses -- helped propel what had been a regional dispute onto the national stage.
As his photographs created national outrage, they quickened the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to John Kaplan, a University of Florida journalism professor who wrote his master's thesis on Moore.
"He had the courage to stand up in the face of danger and let Americans know what was really happening, through his work," Kaplan told The Times. "That is why he is an unsung hero."
As Moore followed the struggle, he was known for his fearlessness and uncanny knack for capturing the most distressing images possible.
"To people who were really bigoted, I was the worst enemy, a Southern boy working for Life," Moore told USA Today in 1991.
"I knew the South. . . . I also knew how to talk back to racists."
The son of a Baptist minister, Moore was drawn to photographing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., then a Baptist clergyman in Montgomery. After witnessing King's charisma firsthand in 1958, Moore sought to cover him whenever possible.
"I knew that this was a man who was going to make a difference," Moore said of King in the 2005 documentary “Charles Moore: I Fight With My Camera.” Moore had yet to realize that his pictures would also make a difference.
A photograph he took in 1958 of King being manhandled during a police booking ran in Life and became "one of the most significant photographs of the civil rights movement," Kaplan wrote in his thesis.
Through the magazine, Moore's work gained a huge national audience. Life had him cover the rioting over the enrollment of James Meredith as the first black student at the University of Mississippi in 1962 and later published his photos of Ku Klux Klan gatherings.
His photographs in Life "electrified and horrified the country," CBS News reported in 1991.
Moore's most influential pictures were taken over five days in 1963 during the campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Ala., Kaplan said. One famous photo -- Moore crawled across pavement, positioning himself between protesters and firemen to get the shot -- showed three students being thrust against a building by high-pressure water from a fire hose.
Covering civil rights "was difficult, exhausting and oftentimes very dangerous," Moore said in the documentary. "Plus troubling and emotional . . . because I'm a Southerner too."
By 1965, he had grown weary of the violence and booked a round-the-world airplane ticket. He came home eight months later.
Charles Lee Moore was born March 9, 1931, in the Alabama farming town of Hackleburg and grew up in nearby Tuscumbia.
As a teenager, he took up boxing and owned his first camera, a Brownie.