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In covering Mississippi civil rights, reporter enhanced his words with photos

Robert P. Moses, field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, points out holes left by a shotgun blast in a wall of a home across the street from the voting drive headquarters in Greenwood, Miss., on March 1963.
Robert P. Moses, field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, points out holes left by a shotgun blast in a wall of a home across the street from the voting drive headquarters in Greenwood, Miss., on March 1963. New York Times

The copper-jacketed bullet tore through a civil rights worker’s shoulder, stopping within an inch of his spine. The shotgun blast shattered the car windows of four voting rights activists and gouged the wall of a nearby home.

And a fire destroyed voter registration equipment and materials outside the city’s Voter Registration Headquarters, leaving the street strewn with rubble.

It was 1963 in Greenwood, Mississippi, a major battleground in the fight for civil rights, and white officials were playing down and ignoring a series of attacks intended to discourage thousands of black Americans from registering to vote.

Claude Sitton, the renowned New York Times correspondent, shot photos and took meticulous notes, exposing the racial violence with his pen and with his lens.

Sitton is best known for his words. But the typewritten letters he sent, along with his camera film, to John Dugan, a Times photo editor, reveal he was also determined to capture history with his camera.

He carried a Leica, according to one of his sons, and wrote about light and shadows and underexposed frames. He lamented the gloom inside a crowded black church and the time constraints he faced as he scrambled to report the news and illustrate it at the same time.

“I didn’t have very much time,” Sitton wrote apologetically, “and will try to give you a better selection the next time I offer something.”

Yet there is power in Sitton’s plain-spoken letters and in the black-and-white images he captured on Tri-X film in March of 1963. Shown together here for the first time — as part of a weekly series running throughout the month — they offer a firsthand glimpse of life on the front lines of the civil rights movement.

In one frame, Robert P. Moses, the field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, clipboard in hand, pointed to the holes left by the shotgun blast in the wall of a weathered home. In another, the charred detritus of the fire — set by a person or persons unknown — littered the street outside the old voting headquarters.

Medgar Evers, the state field secretary of the NAACP, addressed a packed voter registration rally at the local African Methodist Episcopal church in what may well be the only photograph taken of Evers by The Times.

In another series of images, black women took their seats in a citizenship training school intended to train volunteers to help register black voters, and another woman stacked cans of food in the Sunday school room of a local church. The food was collected in Chicago for hungry black farmworkers in Greenwood, who had been denied federal food assistance by white county officials in retaliation for their voter registration efforts.

Black residents accounted for 61 percent of the county’s population. Yet only 1.9 percent of blacks of voting age were registered, compared with 95.5 percent of whites. The Justice Department, contending whites were disenfranchising blacks with discriminatory voting laws, filed suit.

Justice Department officials also sought a federal court order to prevent the city and county from denying blacks the right to protest, after the police unleashed a German shepherd on peaceful marchers and jailed voting rights activists.

It was the first time federal officials had taken such a step, Sitton noted in his article about Greenwood, which was published in April 1963. (Only three of the many photographs he took during his time in Greenwood were published with this article.)

But with every step forward, it seemed, there were several steps back. Two months later, on June 12, 1963, an assassin killed Evers in Jackson.

That afternoon, hundreds of black residents took to the streets in protest. And Sitton was there with his pen, his notebook and his camera.

This story will be part of a book with additional unseen photographs, and new stories, titled “Unseen: Unpublished Black History From the New York Times Archives,” to be published by Black Dog & Leventhal in the fall of 2017.

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