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Memphis, Tennessee, 29 March 1968 | Unknown photographer

Civil rights protesters meet the National Guard at the home of the Memphis Blues.

Hemmed in between tanks and bayonets, civil rights protesters file down Beale Street, Tennessee, birthplace of the Memphis blues and a past stomping ground of Muddy Waters and B B King.

The photograph exudes the heat of March 1968 and the intensity of the civil rights struggle, and graphically demonstrates the divide between the state and those who desired to change it. Less than a week later, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated.

In the introduction to his book I Am a Man! Race, Manhood and the Civil Rights Movement, Steve Estes wrote about the overt masculinity of the signs:

The civil rights movement was first and foremost a struggle for racial equality, but questions of gender lay deeply embedded within this overtly racial conflict. From the outset, the African-American quest for emancipation and equality in the United States was a struggle for recognition of black humanity and citizenship.

In this sense, demands for recognition of black manhood were calls for an acknowledgement of the human rights of both black men and women. Yet men dominated the social and political arenas in which the struggle for rights took place, and this was reflected in the language used to discuss civil rights.

The focal point of the photograph is the man without a sandwich board, walking casually and eyeing the amassed guard. Whether or not he is involved in the protest, the simple contrast he makes with those bearing slogans simply emphasises the force of their message.

Previous: Louisville, Kentucky, January 1937 | Margaret Bourke-White

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This image features in the 50 Greatest Political Photographs (part one) special double issue of the NS. You can order your copy here.

The judges were Jason Cowley, Jonathan Dimbleby, Stuart Franklin, Rebecca McClelland and Jon Snow.