'North of Dixie' Shows the Struggle for Civil Rights in Northern Cities

Nov 28, 2016

There are many images associated with the modern Civil Rights Movement: crowds of people holding signs, policemen attacking children with dogs and fire hoses, or students sitting at lunch counters with jeering crowds behind them.

"Seeing the photographs of people from Milwaukee or Chicago, holding Confederate Flags and angry at Civil Rights protestors, they complicate our understanding of the Civil Rights struggle."

But nearly all of the photos in popular culture depict incidents that happened in southern states. For many Americans these images form our view of that time period, and frame the fight for civil rights as a largely southern issue.

Historian and author Mark Speltz, is hoping to change that image. His book, North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography Beyond the South, features images from cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee. The images offer a variety of views of the Civil Rights Movement. While there are some photos that mirror the violent imagery seen in protests in the south, there are other more subtle photos that show what it meant to live as a black person in the north in the 1950s and '60s. 

Credit Courtesy of Mart Speltz

"I think seeing the photographs of people from Milwaukee or Chicago, holding Confederate Flags and angry at Civil Rights protestors, they complicate our understanding of the Civil Rights struggle, how we remember it," says Speltz.

"We think of [the Civil Rights Movement] as a celebratory tale. There are many things to celebrate: important speeches, important legislative acts, and really important moments," he says. "But when we bring the north into the picture, it complicates it. There's a lot of things that are left undone, issues that we still grapple with, and I think that the photos give us that historical context."

Speltz is a senior historian at American Girl, and a UW-Milwaukee graduate.

This piece was originally published October 26, 2016.