Bob Fitch: Leading Social Movement Photojournalist
Bob Fitch was a leading social movement photojournalist. His photographs were used to promote civil rights, labor rights, and war resistance movements. Bob Fitch devoted his life to community organizing for multiracial democracy after reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Bob Fitch worked and lived at the Resource Center for Nonviolence from 1999 to 2006, and lived in Watsonville from 2006 until his death in 2016.
In 1965 Fitch was invited by Hosea Williams to be a staff photographer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) during the civil rights movement. “I was told, Bob, we can’t send African-American journalists and photographers into the field ’cause they’ll get beat up and killed,’” Fitch recalled in an interview on the website wagingnonviolence.org. “‘Every week you’ll come back with a news story in print and photos, and you’ll send them to the major Black print media around the nation.’”
Fitch photographed voter registration, voting, and recruitment and training for African-American political candidates during the first election following the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. He documented everyday lives of African-Americans, and marches, demonstrations, meetings during SCLC’s organizing efforts in Chicago, People-to-People tours in Alabama, the Meredith Mississippi March Against Fear, and the Citizenship Education Program in Alabama by Septima Clark and Dorothy Cotton.
Clayborne Carson, Stanford University movement historian, recalled that Fitch was so trusted even in unguarded moments that he was the only white person present at an emotional meeting among Dr. King, Stokely Carmichael and other civil rights figures in Greenwood, Miss., in 1966, the night before Mr. Carmichael recast the movement by invoking the slogan “Black Power.”
Summoned to Atlanta in 1968 by Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, to cover her husband’s funeral, Mr. Fitch debated whether to photograph the open coffin.
“It was a tough decision to take that photo. It felt like blasphemy to put a camera in his face. But then I thought, ‘The world needs to see this horrible truth.’”
After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Fitch decided to document other movements making history. He photographed Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, farm workers striking in fields, and the founding convention of the United Farm Workers Union. Fitch photographed Dorothy Day of the Catholic Workers movement, Catholic war resisters Daniel Berrigan and Philip Berrigan, activist singer Joan Baez, draft resister David Harris, Black Member of Congress Ron Dellums and Pajaro Valley political leader Luis Alejo.
His work is presented in Hippie Is Necessary, 1967, My Eyes Have Seen, 1971, Richard Steven Street’s Photographing Farmworkers in California, and the anthology This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement.
During his tenure at RCNV, Bob continued his photojournalism by documenting local peace & justice actions and projects in Vietnam (Friendship Village), Brazil (alcohol fuel), Sri Lanka (International Peaceforce), Palestine, Watsonville, UCSC, and the 2006 Guerrero Azteca Tijuana-to-San Francisco march with Fernando Suarez del Solar, Camilo Mejia and Pablo Paredes.
In his photography he emphasized the role of the rank and file as agents for social change and he was propelled by a desire to not just observe movements but to be deeply involved in them.
Bob Fitch served as the Resource Center’s Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator 1999-2006, and documented RCNV events with his photos. He set up RCNV’s website, streamlined and perfected RCNV’s outreach and media connections. Bob lived upstairs at the Resource Center’s Broadway house for several years and served as the unofficial on-site host and chief mischief maker. He was a mentor to countless young people. He had an organizing principle for young activists who sought RCNV support: “bring 4 people committed to working for your organizing goal for at least a year, and we will support you.”
He was active in RCNV’s GI Rights Hotline, counseling troops and young people about alternatives to the military. He was instrumental in bringing the Santa Cruz City Schools Opt-In program to high schools, so that students had to request to be contacted by military recruiters instead of school districts giving student contact information to recruiters. This program was replicated nationwide.
Bob played a lead role for RCNV in organizing efforts including the Santa Cruz Living Wage Coalition; the Million Mom March; the Santa Cruz Peace Coalition responding to the 1992 Iraq war, and events featuring Black Member of Congress Ron Dellums and his successor, Barbara Lee.
The Bob Fitch Photography Archive is curated by Stanford Libraries Archive and is accessible to all of us. The archive contains over 200,000 images, primarily black and white photographs and negatives, spanning the period from 1965 to 2012. Bob Fitch insisted that as a condition of Stanford receiving the images, people and nonprofit organizations may download high quality image files and reproduce his photos for free. Go online to the Stanford Libraries Bob Fitch Photography Archive. Commercial use requires a fee.