As remembered by Maria Gitin
April 30, 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 generously donated his extensive archives to the Stanford University Libraries under the condition that they be made free and downloadable to all. Bob Fitch Photography Archive.
Fitch was highly critical of civil rights activists and their heirs who attempt to gain what he considered excessive profits from their archives. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or visit: Wilcox County Freedom Fighters 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, Cisar 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.
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.
As remembered by Lula Joe
April 30, 2016
I Pray all is well with you and your families. I received a call earlier today and wanted to pass the information on to you. Some of you may or may not remember, Bob Fitch, but Bob worked with SCLC in 1965 & '66 (I believe). He became the unofficial Movement photographer because of the many photos he took and shared with others. He came on board during the SCOPE Project after Selma's movement; Bob lives in California. At any rate, He passed away on Friday (yesterday). May God continue to strengthen his family and each of you. Stay strong and remember those Soldiers who have crossed over, who are now a part of that great cloud of Movement Witnesses.