Bob Fitch 1939 – 2016
Civil rights photographer Bob Fitch died of complications from Parkinson’s disease at his home in Watsonville, CA on April 29, 2016. As he anticipated his passing, he worked with Stanford University Libraries to acquire his archives under the condition that they be made free and downloadable to all. https://library.stanford.edu/collections/bob-fitch-photography-archive
Stanford Graduate student Ignacio Ornelas Rodriguez, who knew Bob Fitch personally through his academic research, arranged for Bob to meet with Roberto Trujillo, Head of Special Collections and was the conduit for this important archive acquisition.
Fitch was highly critical of civil rights activists and their heirs who attempt to gain what he considered excessive profits from their work. His belief was that the Movement belonged to the people.
Traveling throughout Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia on staff of SCLC 1965-67 Bob documented day-to-day Civil Rights Movement events — local community organizing, violence against Afro American citizens, numerous demonstrations, voter registration and Afro American (a term Bob insisted on, long after it passed out of usage) political campaigns.
Fitch wrote that his images were shipped [by SCLC] to national Afro American publishing outlets that could neither afford nor risk sending reporters to the south. “Those communities, workers and their families,” says Fitch, “are still my heroes.” Many of his best images document the courageous contributions made to the Civil Rights movement by local men, women, and children who organized the cause for freedom in their communities. He photographed nearly all of the Black candidates who ran for office in the first election after the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Some of these photos are still in need of identification, a task which he implored me to continue after his death. Please write email@example.com or visit earlier posts on this blog: visithttps://thislittlelight1965.wordpress.com/2015/12/13/please-help-identify-these-foot-soldiers-for-freedom-photos-by-bob-fitch/ if you are able to assist with identification.
Some of Fitch’s most of iconic photos are of Martin Luther King Jr, Dorothy Cotton, Septima Clark, Ralph Abernathy, and of United Farm Worker leader, César Chavez. These images have been reproduced countless times, often without proper credit. Although he was credited by the US Post Office for their 2002 rendering of one of his Chavez photos, Bob explained “The stamp is an honor, but also a disappointment,” says Fitch. “The stamp rendering replaces the original background, a vivid red and black United Farmworker Union huelga flag, with an agricultural field. The Bush Republican administration was not ready to put a union label on a stamp.”
In another combination honor-disappointment, Bob Fitch’s photo of Martin Luther King Jr. standing in front of a photo of Gandhi was the model for the MLK Memorial in Washington DC. Fitch was not invited to the dedication ceremony and had never seen the statue. In February he asked my husband, Samuel Torres Jr, to take a photo of the monument from the same angle as his photo, which we sent to Fitch. Bob told us that they changed the arrangement of King’s arms in order to avoid paying him royalties. He added to his response dated February 25, 2016, “Maybe it’s the lighting, but I find the monument persona very stern. This is not the preacher of hope.”
Bob didn’t brag about his three years working for King at SCLC nor his seven years documenting the United Farm Workers but he was confidently proud that he did important and lasting work. He argued with anyone he thought was wrong, and he had no patience for activists who were self-aggrandizing or selfish. He spoke often of local individuals he remembered fondly, particularly from Wilcox County and Dallas County where he spent much time with SCLC. I am deeply grateful to Bob for allowing me to use his never-before-seen photos from Wilcox County Alabama in my 2014 memoir, This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight (University of Alabama Press). www.thisbrightlightofours.com Of course, then I owed him – for the rest of his life and beyond – the duty of continuing to help with his photo ID project. Bob was nobody’s fool!
Fitch worked at the Resource Center for Nonviolence in Santa Cruz and with other community groups over the course of his lifetime but photographing the people’s movement was his lifetime passion. Bob was also a talented folk singer, enjoyed and shared a very corny sense of humor, and was fiercely loyal to his friends. He loved his sons and adored his lovely late in life partner, Karen Shaffer. He was a good friend and we will miss him very much. – Maria Gitin, April 30, 2016