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A Birmingham Tableau


Photo by Tommy Langston: A Klan-led mob beats a Freedom Rider at the Birmingham Bus Station, May 14, 1961

Fifty-eight years ago today the Freedom Riders were attacked twice in Alabama, yielding two iconic images of the movement. First came the burning bus just outside Anniston, the result of a Klan firebomb. Later in the day, when another group of Riders arrived at the Birmingham bus station, Tommy Langston, a longtime PJ for the Birmingham Post-Herald, captured the beating of a Rider.  

It was the only photograph Langston could make that day before he too was attacked.       

“They grabbed the Rolleiflex and smashed the lens,” said Langston. “I had a Minolta around my neck, and they grabbed the strap and nearly choked me to death. I just hit the ground and tried to cover my face. I think one of them was swinging a chain, because it caught me right across the face and broke my glasses. Then they started kicking me in the ribs. I don’t know if they thought I was dead, but finally they stopped.”

The next day, this picture ran on the front pages of newspapers around the country and around the world. In 1961, in concert with similar photos, it inspired many of the Riders to join the campaign. Today it remains an instructive tableau of white violence and rage, and rewards close study.