On This Day: The Signing of the Civil Rights Act

Dan Budnik's Photographs Document A Personal and Social History

On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson finally signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964—one of the most important pieces of legislation in US history, which outlawed racial segregation in public places, abolished the South’s discriminatory Jim Crow laws, and introduced equal rights for all Americans applying to register to vote. The bill, initially put forth by President Kennedy in 1963, was by no means a final solution to the problem of social division in America—while it allowed African Americans the right to apply to vote, it notably lacked provisions to make the requirement tests for registration fair and democratic—but its passage was a victory for the civil rights movement and its supporters. Today, to celebrate the bill’s anniversary, we feature a portfolio of images from photographer Dan Budnik, a member of Magnum Photos and close friend of Bruce Davidson, who was introduced to some of the leading figures from the civil rights movement by his art teacher Charles Alston in the early 50s. Budnik went on his first march in 1958, protesting against segregation in schools, and in the early 60s, documented the movement during some of its greatest and most tumultuous episodes, including the unforgettable March on Washington in 1963. Budnik took some of these photographs while technically on assignment for Life (in an attempt to infiltrate the white side of the political divide) but none have been published before, and all offer a personal take on the landmarks they portray, neatly captioned in Budnik’s own hand. The pictures, over 100 of which are being exhibited this October at Queensborough Community College, New York, cover iconic moments such as the first time Lena Horne met Josephine Baker outside the Lincoln memorial on the day of the March on Washington—“Horne was like a five year-old, dancing around her idol, while Josephine Baker was completely dignified,” he says. But Budnik’s powerful photographs also portray the unseen and incidental, such as 16 year-old activist Leander Dudley (“probably one of the most energized marchers that I photographed”) strutting and singing on the 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, a protest that would end in the passing of the National Voting Rights Act. Looking back, the photographer, now 78, reminisces: “It was a watershed moment. We couldn’t, as a nation, have gone on being debilitated by this racial division. I knew I had to be there, just had to.”
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