March 16, 1942 –
Raised in Brooklyn and Queens, New York
Julian Bond spoke of SNCC photographer Danny Lyon’s pictures as “[helping] to make the movement move.” Lyon himself called his work as a photographer “the existential struggle to be free.”
Born in New York during World War II, Lyon’s Jewish identity inspired and informed his work in SNCC. In the summer of 1962, after his third year studying history at the University of Chicago, Lyon hitchhiked to Cairo, Illinois with his camera where a desegregation movement was underway. Inspired by a photo of Tom Hayden, a northern student and SDS leader, Lyon asked himself, “If Tom Hayden could go from Michigan to Mississippi, why couldn’t I?”
Brought into SNCC by James Forman as its first staff photographer, Lyon spent two years documenting SNCC activists and demonstrations against the backdrop of racial violence in the South. While SCLC was already highly visible in the media, “to the watching world, SNCC was faceless.” With the help of Lyon’s early photography, SNCC began to develop its public image. In Cairo, for example, Lyon’s image of a kneeling John Lewis at the demonstration became an iconic poster with the the words “Come Let us Build a New World Together” overlaid on the picture. Many other SNCC posters and pamphlets featured Lyon’s photographs. They garnered the sympathy for the Movement and inspired others. In 1963, he lent his spare Nikon to Tamio Wakayama, who became a SNCC staff photographer after Lyon left the South. Wakayama said, “I will always be grateful to Danny for that.”
In August 1963, Danny’s photographs helped secure justice for over 30 teenage girls active in the Movement in Americus, Georgia. They had been jailed in the Leesburg Stockade for 45 days with little food or sanitation. Just 21-years-old himself, Lyon snuck into the Leesburg Stockade where the girls were being held with a hidden camera and photographed them “through the broken glass barred windows.” The pictures first appeared in SNCC’s Student Voice newsletter, then began appearing in newspapers across the nation with headlines like “GA Marchers Kept in Filthy, Stench Filled Jail.” The girls were quickly released to their families, and Lyon’s photos were entered in the Congressional Record. This experience solidified Danny’s sense of belonging in SNCC. He remembered, “in Americus, my pictures had actually accomplished something. They had gotten people out of jail.”
As a SNCC staff member, Lyon grew close with activists like Julian Bond and James Forman. He remembered, “Forman would direct me, protect me, and at times fight for a place for me in the movement. He is directly responsible for my pictures existing at all.”
Lyon had enjoyed being the only photographer in many of the places SNCC sent him, but by the summer of 1964, more photographers were coming into SNCC. As he saw it, the evolving work of the Movement “did not lend itself to photography” in the same way as SNCC’s earlier organizing efforts. At the same time, there was a growing skepticism among some movement people about whether whites should even be in the Movement. “This thought, once left unspoken, was coming out into the open more and more,” Lyon recalled. These things, along with increasing violence, pushed him to leave SNCC.
Lorraine Hansberry and Danny Lyon, The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1964), 80–81.
Leslie G. Kelen, ed. This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement (Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2011), 209-210.
Danny Lyon, Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement (Chapel Hill: Published for the Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University, by the University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 2, 24, 30, 78, 149.
Donna Owens, “Stolen Girls,” Essence, June 1 2006.
Leigh Raiford, “Come Let us Build a New World Together”: SNCC and Photography in the Civil Rights Movement” American Quarterly, 2007.
Tom Seymour, “Danny Lyon – Soul of a Radical,” British Journal of Photography, November 2014, 42-48.
Graham P. Shaffer, “Leesburg Stockade Girls,” Stetson Law Review, 2008, 941-945.