Jim Peppler was a graduate student in journalism at Penn State University in the 1960s, “caught between knowing that straight photojournalism was what I was called to do” (in an era in which all available jobs were as ‘reporter-photographer’) on the one hand and totally committed to the goals of the civil-rights movement on the other after hearing Martin Luther King, Jr. speak at PSU. Peppler was not a sign-carrying confrontational sort of person, however. Many of his family members, he said, were “solidly racist.”
Now a Saugerties resident, Peppler was recalling the origins of photo work he’s now made available for Black History Month. He shot many of his images for a groundbreaking weekly newspaper published in Alabama from 1965 through 1968 that covered those times for African-American communities in the South.
“My faculty advisor told me about The Southern Courier starting up and looking for staff. I called them and was hired. We operated as civil-rights workers with a weekly $15 stipend for expenses and donated or company-run living arrangements. I was asked to meet them in Atlanta in two days, with the commitment to volunteer for at least three months.”
The Southern Courier was started by a Harvard student and graduate who’d been down south working for the Harvard Crimson. Much of what they were witnessing not only failed to get reported by the national press, but more importantly was ignored by Southern newspapers. Some $68,500 was raised from private sources to create a publication that would provide “a full and accurate account of the movement, its goals and tactics.” It was intended to “go far toward knitting the various Negro communities of the South together.”
Michael S. Lottman, a former managing editor of The Harvard Crimson, became editor. He borrowed the college paper’s six-column, six-page look, as well as its mix of reportage, cultural coverage and memoirs by the likes of Dr. King and Rosa Parks. The enterprise sustained itself on paid subscriptions from outside the South, a few foundation grants, and street sales in two dozen communities in Alabama and Mississippi to which some 30,000 papers were shipped weekly by Greyhound bus.
Those participating in the venture were asked to live in the communities they covered. “At the time they were thinking that they/we would just start the paper and then hand it over to local Southerners to operate as we carpet-baggers returned North to actual money-earning jobs,” Peppler remembered. “It didn’t work that way…There were very few local people who could risk themselves and all their local family being connected to as public an activity as reporting on local events. So I stayed three years. Being behind a camera to witness to what others were doing just turned out to be my level of serving the causes that I had heard King speak of.”
Over time the publication, and especially Peppler’s photos, became a key source of material for historians covering that momentous time. Many Courier staff went on to work in law, public service, and many of the nation’s top publications.
Peppler worked for years at Newsday, and taught photojournalism until retiring in recent years. His photos from The Southern Courier are archived at the Alabama Department of Archives and History. “He depicted people like the people who read — and who we wanted to read — the paper in ways they had never been seen in the local press,” editor Lottman later noted.
Looking through Peppler’s eyes at the images he took, one sees a world where segregation and apartheid were as matter-of-fact as the signage on the bathrooms everyone used. It’s a history that still lurks beneath the deified Confederate generals and flags.