The independent news organization of Duke University

Rivera finds posterity in civil rights photos

Locals barely took notice of the dusty white signs over Lumberton, N.C.'s movie theater: one entrance for whites, one for blacks and one for Indians.

But when a photographer from a nationally syndicated newspaper arrived in 1948 to document the segregated theater, he quickly found himself in the back of a police car.

"I told the officer to find the law under which I was arrested," said Alexander Rivera. "He left me with the chief [of police] and went out to look. After a long time he came back because he couldn't find anything and they let me go."

For Rivera, 94, the incident is memorable as his first and only arrest, but it was far from the only time his camera went where it was not welcome. In a career spanning five decades, three newspapers and thousands of photographs, Rivera turned his lens on some of the most important-and controversial-events of the civil rights movement.

"He told a story a lot of times that otherwise never would have been told," said Robert Lawson, campus photographer at North Carolina Central University and a longtime friend of Rivera's.

Today, Rivera is once again in the spotlight as local preservationists wage a campaign to save his former house from demolition. The house, located at 1712 Fayetteville Street, is the property of NCCU.Officials hope to demolish the crumbling structure to make way for a new convocation center. But some groups decry the move as historically insensitive.

On his blog, Preservation Durham member Gary Kueber writes that it is an "attempt to chip away at [Durham's] African-American history." Rivera himself, however, feels differently.

"That house has no value," he said. "I would never bother speaking up in its defense."

Regardless of what happens to the Rivera house however, many, including Shirl Spicer, a former North Carolina Museum of History curator responsible for creating an exhibit of Rivera's photographs, which are currently on display, said he has a legacy worth remembering.

"Through the articles he wrote and the images he took, he became a true supporter of [civil rights] causes," she said.

A North Carolina native, Rivera took his first newspaper job in the 1930s, after dropping out of Howard University in Washington, D.C., because he couldn't foot the tuition bills. It was a career, he said-not an attempt at advocacy.

But that job quickly took Rivera to the heart of the civil rights struggle.

In 1947, when a group of parents in Clarendon County, S.C., initiated a desegregation lawsuit against their local school board, Rivera was there to document it, camera in hand. His photographs recorded the case's most dramatic moments-the headline-making rallies, confrontations and speeches-but he also captured the day to day grittiness of the struggle.

In one photograph, he shows movement leaders clustered around a church donation platter brimming with crumpled dollar bills-a collection from local community members to help fund the suit.

Seven years later, the Clarendon case reached the Supreme Court, one of five cases that joined to form the groundbreaking 1954 Brown v. Board of Education. By that time, Rivera was a well-established correspondent, traveling widely to record the everyday realities of the Jim Crow South.

"There were some stories that were dangerous and some that were comical and some that were a lot of fun," Rivera said.

He covered the murder of Isaiah Nixon, the last reported lynching victim in Georgia, and the birth of Reidsville, North Carolina's Futz quadruplets, known as "the world's only identical quadruplets."

James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston and Nat King Cole have also all stepped in front of his camera.

Rivera's photographs captured the complexities of an era. In 1959, he took pictures of North Carolina's vehemently segregationist governor, Luther Hodges proudly welcoming Sekou Toure, the black president of the Republic of Guinea, to the state.

Despite years in the pages of national newspapers, however, some, like Lawson, said they worry that Rivera's legacy is in danger of being forgotten.

"I talk to students now and they can barely believe [segregation] happened," Lawson said. "But it was real for all of us and unless we keep being aware of that, it could easily happen again. That's why [Rivera's] photographs are so important."


Share and discuss “Rivera finds posterity in civil rights photos” on social media.