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Bob Adelman, Who Photographed Iconic Civil Rights Moments, Dies

Mar 21, 2016
Originally published on March 21, 2016 7:27 am

When Martin Luther King Jr. made his "I Have A Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, Bob Adelman was standing just a few feet away with a camera to his eye.

From the March on Washington to Dr. King's funeral, he captured some of the most iconic images of the civil rights movement.

The photographer was found dead on Saturday in his home in Miami Beach. Ernesto Rodriguez, a spokesman for the Miami Beach Police Department, said his death is still being investigated.

Adelman was 85.

One of Adelman's best known photographs shows four civil rights activists holding hands. It was taken in Birmingham in 1963. The protesters were walking toward a confrontation with police officers who are using water cannons to clear the streets.

In a 2008 interview with NPR, Adelman said those hoses were so powerful that they could "skin the bark off trees."

"A single individual could not stand up [to the cannons]," Adelman said. "But as a group, they could. And it became emblematic. That picture was used actually as part of the recruiting for the march on Washington."

Adelman was there for the lunch counter protests in Alabama and at Malcom X's funeral. His photos appeared in national newspapers and magazines, but Adelman was an artist and activist first.

Bonnie Clearwater, who put on a retrospective of his work at the NSU Museum in Fort Lauderdale, says that made him unique.

"He was part of the movement, so he had access into both big moments and intimate moments that most photo journalists wouldn't," she said.

Adelman, who was white, said he became interested in African American life after watching Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker perform in the late '40s. When he heard about the student sit-in movement, he offered to help.

In his interview with NPR, he quoted the author Ralph Ellision. He said that the black experience is part of the experience of all Americans.

"Ralph emphasized in our conversations that a special sensitivity to African Americans was incumbent on all americans because this country was torn apart by the race question and resolved it in favor of equality," he said.

Beyond the civil rights movement, Adelman photographed women's liberation and the gay rights movement.

"He felt passionately about injustice and what could he do as a photographer to make change," she said.

Ultimately, she added, Adelman "helped change the world with his photographs."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When Martin Luther King Jr. made his "I Have A Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, standing a few feet away with a camera to his eye was a man named Bob Adelman. From the March on Washington to Dr. King's funeral, Adelman captured some of the most iconic images of the civil rights movement. He died over the weekend in Miami Beach, and NPR's Eyder Peralta has this remembrance.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: One of Bob Adelman's best-known photographs shows four civil rights activists holding hands. It's 1963 in Birmingham, and they're walking toward a confrontation with policemen who are using water cannons to clear the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BOB ADELMAN: Those hoses were so powerful, they could skin the bark off trees.

PERALTA: That's Adelman talking about that photograph a few years back on NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ADELMAN: A single individual could not stand up, but as a group they could. And it became emblematic. That picture was used actually as part of the recruiting for the March on Washington.

PERALTA: Adelman was there for the lunch counter protests in Alabama and at Malcolm X's funeral. His photos appeared in national newspapers and magazines, but Adelman was an artist and activist first. Bonnie Clearwater, who put on the retrospective of his work at the NSU Museum in Fort Lauderdale says that made him unique.

BONNIE CLEARWATER: He was part of the movement, so he had access into both big moments and intimate moments that most photojournalists wouldn't.

PERALTA: Adelman, who was a white man, became interested in African-American life after watching Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker in the late '40s. When he heard about the student sit-in movement, he offered to help. In his interview with NPR, he quoted the author Ralph Ellison. He said that the black experience is part of the experience of all Americans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ADELMAN: Ralph emphasized in our conversations that a special sensitivity to African-Americans was incumbent on all Americans because, you know, this country was torn apart by the race question and resolved it in favor of equality.

PERALTA: Bonnie Clearwater says that beyond the civil rights movement, Adelman photographed women's liberation and the gay rights movement.

CLEARWATER: He felt passionately about injustice and what could he do as a photographer to make change.

PERALTA: Adelman who was 85, was found dead in his home on Saturday. Police say they're investigating his death. Eyder Peralta, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL BE SEEING YOU")

BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) I'll be seeing you in all the old... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.