A picture famously shot by Birmingham Post-Herald photographer Tommy Langston, the image itself is a transformational document. Depicting the vicious attack by a mob of Ku Klux Klansmen on Freedom Riders at Birmingham’s Trailways bus station, Langston’s photograph was called by Vickii Howell of Birmingham View the “Picture that Changed Birmingham.”
That was an apt title, because it was that May 14, 1961 image, plucked from the front page of the Post-Herald by wire services which carried it around the world, that embarrassed businessman Sidney Smyer in front of an International Rotary Club audience. It was that image which propelled Smyer, a formerly staunch segregationist, to return home and begin working to remove from office the most outspoken, and perhaps the most powerful, proponent of segregation in the city, the infamous Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor.
“I’ve always felt like Tommy’s picture from the Trailways bus station was a key element in the civil rights history of Birmingham,” said Jim Willis, former editor-in-chief of the Post-Herald. “It marked the first time there was any significant news coverage of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham and it captured and preserved a graphic moment that made it impossible to ignore the violent nature of the Klan in Birmingham.”
This is the story behind that image, a story which has been told before, but which remains worth the retelling. It is a story about how such an important photograph was taken by such a humble man.
TommyLangstonwas not a crusading photojournalist prone to seek out danger, or boldly wade into hotspots like a hero on a mission. He was, by all accounts, just a mild-mannered guy doing his job. Those who worked with him at the Post-Herald, where he remained until his retirement in 1989, worked with a man who did not like having a fuss made over him or even his–and, arguably, the newspaper’s–most influential original picture.
“I’m sure Tommy had no idea when he went to work that day in 1961 that he would be put in position of snapping such a historic photo,” said Steve Bell, a staff editor at The New York Times and former metro editor of the Post-Herald. “But perhaps it is fitting that such a gentle soul should be responsible for opening a window on the viciousness of that era.”
Here’s how the photograph came to be. Langston was assigned to go over to the Trailways depot, just a few blocks away from the newspaper. A mob of unrobed Klansmen wielding baseball bats and lead and iron pipes had convened at the station awaiting a bus full of Freedom Riders headed to Birmingham to protest segregation. A different busload of Freedom Riders had already been attacked in Anniston earlier in the day, the riders assaulted by a gang of Klansmen and the bus burned by a firebomb hurled by one of the attackers.
Birmingham Police, aware of the impending siege on the depot, stayed away from the Trailways station. According to well-documented accounts, the police implicitly granted the Klan 15 minutes to do whatever violence they wanted to the Freedom Riders. In fact, the civil rights protesters had already been brutally attacked by Klansmen riding the same bus, so they had been bloodied and wounded before they ever disembarked in Birmingham.
Langston was one of several newsmen who arrived at the depot to find the assault well underway. As he stood behind a group of attackers, which included FBI informant Gary Thomas Rowe (he is second from the right in the photo, bent forward and participating in the beating), Langston’s flashbulb attracted the attention of the Klansmen.
The attackers then turned on Langston, who, according to the 2005 book Freedom Riders by Raymond Arsenault, managed to flee to the parking lot before he was caught. As one man grabbed his camera and smashed it to the ground, Rowe and others beat Langston, who picked himself up and managed to make it back to the newspaper. There, according to Arsenault’s detailed retelling, the photographer collapsed into the arms of one of his colleagues.
Someone else retrieved his camera and found that the film was, amazingly, intact. It was the lead image across the top of the Post-Herald the next day. The impact was nearly immediate: Langston’s photo shook things up in Birmingham.
“Tommy’s photo forced the business leaders in Birmingham, segregationists that they were, to face the reality that the unofficial sponsorship of the Klan by Bull Connor was bad for Birmingham and bad for business,” Willis said. “It also made it pretty clear the FBI’s role was suspect because of the complicity of its confidential informant, Gary Thomas Rowe, in participating in violence, rather than just observing it.
“That led to the realization that Bull Connor was out of control and was no longer doing the bidding for the community’s power structure. He had eclipsed their power and, as an elected commissioner of fire and police, would be at least difficult and, perhaps, impossible to unseat. The solution, of course, was to change the form of government to mayor/council so the person in charge of police would be appointed, rather than elected.”
That is, of course, the story being told in Weld’s continuing series, No More Bull! Langston’s story continued for many years to come at the Post-Herald. In the immediate aftermath of his beating by the Klan, a shaken Langston moved his family–his wife Tommie was pregnant at the time–to a safer location. “People who were there told me that after the confrontation at the bus station, Tommy went home to his family (elsewhere in the state) and it took then-editor Jimmy Mills making a special trip to talk him into returning to work,” said Karl Seitz, longtime editorial page editor at the P-H.
Langston continued taking pictures for the Post-Herald, covering, as a matter of routine, whatever assignments came his way for the rest of the 1960s, through the 70s, and until he left in 1989. His famous picture and his longevity made him something of a legend, although you’d never know it from either his approach to his work, or his demeanor.
“Tommy was the penultimate gentleman photographer. Always on time, well dressed and up for any challenge,” said Larry Kasperek, who became head of the Post-Herald’s photo and graphics department.
Young reporters, often paired with photographers for assignments, never had a more considerate partner than Langston, said Grace Moss, who started at the Post-Herald in 1982.
“Tommy and I were sent to work an interstate accident scene once,” she recalled. “It was on the northbound side of the interstate. Tommy parked on the southbound shoulder and we walked across. This was at about 3 p.m. Unfortunately, by the time we were ready to leave, it was 5:30, dark and very cold. Tommy and I ended up standing in the median of the interstate for about an hour until traffic cleared enough for us to cross back to his car. You’d be amazed how much wind cars can generate going 70-plus miles an hour. Tommy gave me his coat and insisted I wear it that whole time.”
Moss remembered Langston talking about Birmingham’s history. But not everything that he remembered. “Eventually I came to know that Tommy had covered the Freedom Riders’ arrival at the downtown bus station, and had been attacked himself in the process,” Moss said. “I don’t remember who told me that story, but I know it wasn’t Tommy. He had a thousand opportunities to say ‘Hey, kid, you know I was there at a pivotal moment in civil rights history,’ but he didn’t. Never even mentioned it.”
Not mentioning that photo–which hung on the wall so that everyone who worked at the P-H for years walked by it, day in and day out–that was Langston’s norm. “I was aware of his involvement in the Trailways/Freedom Riders attack,” said Bill Singleton, who began his career as a Birmingham journalist at the Post-Herald. “But it was an incident Tommy never really talked about much–at least not to me. Maybe it was because the incident was so traumatic that he didn’t want to continue reliving it verbally. Maybe it was because he was simply doing his job and didn’t want to be seen as a hero, compared to the brave men and women who challenged Birmingham’s segregated structure and put their lives on the line doing so.
“Even so, Tommy’s decision to stare into the face of racism through the lens of his camera and continue snapping pictures…made him a hero,” Singleton said.
Langston, who still lives an unassuming life in a Birmingham suburb, was not available for comment for this story. That’s just as well–he’s not a man who toots his own horn–even though the weight of history makes it clear that he did a pretty important thing that day in 1961.
“Tommy’s probably not the guy you would pick out of a group of any 100 people to be the tough, courageous individual it would take to do what he did at the bus station that day,” Willis said. “Tommy did what ordinary people sometimes do when they are thrust into extraordinary circumstances. He rose to the occasion and did his job to the best of his ability. In that assignment, he produced an iconic photograph and showed that even quiet, unassuming folks can be tough and courageous when circumstances require it.”
Nick Patterson, who began his career working with Tommy Langston at the Post-Herald, is editor of Weld.