By Janelle Walker
Columbia, Mo. (March 8, 2006) — Alexander Cohn, a master’s student at the Missouri School of Journalism, uncovered thousands of old photo negatives taken in the Civil Rights era and now has exposed them to the world. His story has been making its way around the world via the Associated Press and CNN.
The Civil Rights pictures that Cohn found appeared for the first time in the Feb. 26 issue of The Birmingham (Ala.) News, in an eight-page special section titled, “Unseen. Unforgotten.”
While working as a photo intern at the newspaper in November 2004, Cohn went through an equipment closet at the newspaper in search of a lens. He saw a cardboard box on a shelf marked “Keep. Do Not Sell.” The negatives in the box evidently had been set aside to prevent theft after many images from the era turned up missing.
“These images were hidden in plain sight,” Cohn said. “When I first started looking through this stuff, I was seeing a lot of images that no one had ever seen before.”
Originally, for his master’s project, Cohn planned to shoot a photo story about a small Oklahoma town dominated by a lead smelter. But Cohn has turned his discovery of the Civil Rights photos into his master’s project at the Missouri School of Journalism. He scanned the images and then brought them to the attention of the executive editor and publisher at The Birmingham News, who gave him approval for the academic project with the understanding that the images would not be distributed in any way. Cohn worked on the project for his last two months as an intern in Birmingham. In the spring, he returned to Columbia for his last semester of classes and to work as the assistant photo director at the Columbia Missourian, the daily community newspaper lab for Missouri Journalism students. Then Cohn presented the images that he had researched to The Birmingham News in hopes of publishing them.
With support from The Birmingham News, Cohn served as project manager and worked with a team of the paper’s news reporters, designers, editors and Web producers with the goal of publishing images that had never been printed. The team interviewed dozens of photographers, clergymen, elected officials and Civil Rights movement participants, including U.S. Rep. John Lewis and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. More than 30 photos appear in the special print section; the newspaper’s Web site contains 80 additional photos, interview excerpts with some of the participants and photographers and a PDF of the special section.
“By getting these images published we hoped to give the community a fuller picture of events of the era and historians some fresh ways to look at representative events which took place in Birmingham, around the state and around region,” Cohn said.
David Rees, Berkley Hudson, and Zoe Smith, faculty at the Missouri School of Journalism, assisted Cohn throughout his project by serving as his master’s committee. Cohn filed weekly reports about the progress of his project, and the committee helped him by giving feedback, encouragement, motivation, and sometimes providing information or strategies. Each packet of negatives had only hints of information, the year and a general subject, like “Race Demonstrations, Downtown.” Cohn worked to find the who, what, when, where and why of each photograph.
“Alex had the vision and the determination to persuade The Birmingham News to produce the kind of news product that has impact and meaning for readers, whether online from around the world or up-close in Birmingham,” Hudson said. “Alex unearthed these neglected images that now can make real the unfinished business in race relations of Birmingham’s past that continues to linger in our contemporary life.”
Cohn, originally from Birmingham, graduated from the University of Virginia in 1997 with a degree in archaeology and medieval studies. He worked as a researcher with National Geographic Books and a photographer at Georgia’s Clayton News Daily in Atlanta before his internship with The Birmingham News. Cohn plans to defend his master’s project at the Missouri School of Journalism in April. He is currently freelancing as a photographer and hopes to work on a book version of his Civil Rights project.
Janelle Walker, of Fowler, Ill., is studying broadcast news at the Missouri School of Journalism. She reports for KOMU and has assisted Columbia-area United Way agencies with their promotional efforts. Walker will intern this summer with Anthem Publishing/KC Magazine in the audience development area. After graduation in December 2006, she will pursue a career in public relations.
Updated: April 8, 2020