Beyond the Green Box: Resurrecting the Elusive Lens of Rufus Hinton

Beyond the Green Box:

Resurrecting the Elusive Lens of Rufus Hinton 

by D. Amari Jackson

At his mother’s request, less than a month after his father’s April 2013 death, Marlon Hitchcock descended the stairway of his parents’ split-level home in southwest Atlanta late one afternoon to sort through years of papers, clothes, records, and tools his dad had left behind.

“My dad was a builder, so he had a lot of tools and stuff,” says Hitchcock, of the late James T. Hinton. That particular day, recalls Hitchcock, “it was just my mom and one of my cousins at the house. I didn’t really come with many expectations outside of finding a couple of shirts or maybe some tools I might have been interested in.”

Upon entering his father’s office and perusing a closet with numerous items, Hitchcock noticed a green metal box, roughly 8 x 10 inches, sitting in a corner on the top shelf. “I was just kind of going through some stuff, saw the green box, opened it, and was like, ‘Wow, this is film.” An amateur photographer himself, Hitchcock noted the large amount of negatives before putting them to the side without examining them. “I didn’t really think too much of it at the time,” he acknowledges. Nonetheless, he was set on preserving it, given “somebody might see that and just discard it.”  

Hitchcock was also set on returning at some point to give the box of negatives more attention. “It piqued my interest, and I was wondering what could possibly be on there, thinking it might be family stuff,” remembers Hitchcock, who was “expecting to see pictures of the auntie or the nephews or something like that.”

“But it wasn’t until more recently that I had a chance to open it up,” continues  Hitchcock. “And the first film I held up to the light was a photo of what appeared to be Muhammad Ali.”

Ali in Dressing Room - Rufus Hinton Archives
Ali in Dressing Room - Rufus Hinton Archives

Stunned, and “not knowing what to make of it,” Hitchcock went out and “got me one of those machines where you can put the film in and see it.” Upon confirming the image was Muhammad Ali in the ring with assistant trainer and hype man, Drew Bundini Brown, a fascinated Hitchcock proceeded to go through the bevy of images capturing the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. Mostly centered in Atlanta and New York, the images included such historic figures as Ali, Nikki Giovanni, Roberta Flack, Lester Maddox, H. Rap Brown, Faith Ringgold, Stokely Carmichael, Julian Bond, Betty Shabazz, Louis Farrakhan, the Black Panthers, and other celebrities and activists from those tumultuous decades.

Betty Shabazz - Rufus Hinton Archives

Betty Shabazz - Rufus Hinton Archives

“I started asking more questions,” says Hitchcock, who’d later piece together from his family that the green box had been given to his father for safekeeping by his uncle Rufus. “I found out that he was actually a photographer. But it really wasn’t until I started going through all the photos that I saw what level he was on.”

There were a lot of them given Hinton was a prolific photographer deeply immersed in the historic events and movements he captured on film. In 1964, at age 16, Hinton was one of, if not the youngest to join the photography staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) under John Lewis. Within his first two years at SNCC, the young photographer snapped images of the likes of Julian Bond, Stokely Carmichael, and Malcolm X, also capturing the highly-publicized arrest image of Anna Puckett by white police officers during the Atlanta Summerhill Rebellion of September 1966 following the police shooting of an unarmed Black man.

Kathleen Cleaver - Rufus Hinton Archives

Kathleen Cleaver - Rufus Hinton Archives

Through the ‘60s and ‘70s, Hinton’s work appeared in popular magazines like Jet and Ebony, as well as in a variety of publications and exhibits recording the social and cultural movements of the day. He contributed images to the film, Save the Children, a 1973 documentary covering performers who appeared during Jesse Jackson’s 1972 Operation PUSH exposition in Chicago. And, in 1980, Hinton’s images were included in a photographic exhibit at the Smithsonian and published in several books.

Impoverished Boy Crying, Vine City Atlanta - Rufus Hinton Archives

Impoverished Boy Crying, Vine City Atlanta - Rufus Hinton Archives

All would be historic achievements for any photographer, particularly one young, Black, and operating in a 20th century American era largely characterized by its tumult and its hostility toward those fitting his description.

Perhaps even more remarkable than Hinton’s active career was the fact that most—including members of his own family—did not know anything about it.

“The whole time, I never knew he was a photographer,” says Hitchcock, who had no clue of his uncle’s remarkable career until opening that green box almost seven years after his death. Consistently, in an obituary published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in January 2007, there was no mention of Hinton’s career as a photographer or photojournalist.

“He was always the cool uncle, you know what I mean?” chuckles Hitchcock. “The one that came around and, you know, always had nice clothes. He was probably one of the first people I ever saw wear an actual dashiki,” recalls Hitchcock, noting Hinton was the only Muslim in a family of Christians at a time where Islam was not commonly accepted. “So that was the first thing that stood out.” But “he always stayed fly. He was just smooth and always seemed to have on shades… that cool guy that you never really knew what he was into.”

Amiri Baraka - Rufus Hinton Archives

Amiri Baraka - Rufus Hinton Archives

When you marry into a family, you are commonly immersed into a new family dynamic revealing the relations between siblings, be they positive or dysfunctional. But there was nothing revealing about the Hinton brothers’ family.

“I met my husband in 1974 and we were married in 1975, but I did not meet Rufus until four years later,” says Brenda Hinton, Hitchcock’s mother. Though she had heard her husband had a brother named Rufus, “I didn’t know anything about him. He was never around.” From the meeting, Brenda “learned absolutely nothing about him because he came into our house, went in the refrigerator, got himself a couple oranges, and went back outside where my husband was located. After that, I didn't see him anymore for years.” She explains how Hinton “very seldom told his family where he was. I’m not talking about months or week. He would disappear for years at a time.”

“Let me say this,” continues Brenda. “My husband’s family was not the conventional family, as I knew it, okay? They were very secretive when it comes to their lives.” Even though her brother-in-law lived in Atlanta, Brenda says she could count the times she actually saw Rufus “on less than one hand,” including once as “a chef at The Mansion” restaurant on Ponce de Leon Avenue, as “a maintenance engineer at a downtown building,” and sometime “around 1999 or 2000” when “I laid eyes on him at his house in West End. After that, I never saw him again. It was really strange.”

What we do know about Hinton is that he grew up and went to school in Atlanta. We know he was an active photographer at an early age working for the SNCC photography staff and, by way of his representative images, particularly in New York’s Muslim community and Atlanta’s civil rights battlegrounds. We know that he was a cinematographer for at least three documentary films given his ongoing listing at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). We also know that a 17-year-old Hinton, in the spring of 1966, was convicted of desecrating an American flag after taking part in demonstrations in Cordele, Georgia. He was sentenced to one year of hard labor before getting out on a $1,000 bond. According to a SNCC report housed at The Civil Rights Movement Archive, the Cordele sheriff was upset by the bond, likely raised by SNCC, and “that Rufus would run off as soon as he was bailed out.…”

Children - Rufus Hinton Archives

Children - Rufus Hinton Archives

Whether he did or not is uncertain. What is also uncertain is another sketchy account of Hinton impersonating a photography professor at Clark Atlanta University.

“When my husband’s family did talk about Rufus—the very few times they did—they were very much aware that he had impersonated a professor and taught photography at Clark,” says Brenda, noting that Hinton’s alleged teaching stint came to an end when “the establishment found out that he did not have a degree.”

The source of this particular account?

“Rufus is the one who told my husband that,” says Brenda. “Now, whether or not it is true, we don’t know."

“He got locked up for burning an American flag and then he was supposed to have been impersonating a professor or something up at Clarke for a while,” laughs Hitchcock. “So, the dude was a wild man. He was all over the place but, like I said before, just super cool while doing it.”

Cop Watch - Rufus Hinton Archives

Cop Watch - Rufus Hinton Archives

There’s not much information on Hinton’s whereabouts over the last three decades of his life. Legendary photographer Jim Alexander—who had occasional contact with Hinton since their days at Atlanta’s Neighborhood Arts Center back in the 1970s—offers what he knows. “He used to come sit in on my classes or he’d hang out and talk with the other artists at the center,” remembers Alexander, noting “a lot of times we would be at the same events.”

Sometime around the early 21st century, Alexander ran into Hinton on the street. “He liked to hang on Auburn Avenue” and he “told me he had gone to Germany or somewhere overseas,” says Alexander, depicting how Hinton would go away for years and “all of a sudden, he’d just show up.”

“I don’t ever remember seeing him with any particular person,” continues Alexander. “But Rufus did his own thing, you know?”

Undoubtedly, Hinton did his own thing to the very end. Consistent with his mysterious life, no one knew about his death either. “He actually passed away alone in his home, and by the time they found him, he was, like, mummified,” recounts Hitchcock. In January 2007, “My dad just happened to go by there, which he would do from time to time. He saw his car there and went to the door and he wouldn’t come to the door. But they ended up getting in the house some kind of way and, yeah, he had been passed away for a while.”

“When he died, he was living in the house that they grew up in,” adds Brenda.  “He had been dead for quite a while because the animals had eaten parts of his body.”

Yet despite his remarkable lifetime elusiveness and unceremonial death, Hinton’s legacy remains in his images. Given the substantial number of movement ads, SNCC promotional publications, documentary films, and magazines both national and regional, Hinton’s work was a significant contribution to an historic American era where the country struggled to determine which of its citizens could actually reap the fruits of its democratic promise.

Faith Ringgold  - Rufus Hinton Archives

Faith Ringgold  - Rufus Hinton Archives

And, within this messy yet necessary nation-building process, photography was key. While television was a good medium for grabbing the attention of national audiences and familiarizing them with the movement and its key figures, its impact was limited given the nature of the rapidly moving news cycle and its quest to ‘break’ a story in a timely fashion, often without a primary focus on meaning or substance.

However, photography, in the words of Leigh Raiford in her December 2007 American Quarterly profile on SNCC’s photography unit, “proved a more accessible, contemplative, and democratic medium than television.” For Raiford, “photographs of police brutality, demonstrations, and organizing activities, as well as the media of their dissemination in pamphlets and in newsletters, as posters and as buttons, quietly surround and inform both casual and serious histories of African American social movements.” Photography, she promotes, “has proved important in recounting the campaigns and activities of organizations as diverse as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), SNCC, and the Black Panther Party to audiences then and now. These images also bring to light the medium’s significance as a tool for mobilization and self-representation by movement organizers.”

Remember Attica Prison - Rufus Hinton Archives

Remember Attica Prison - Rufus Hinton Archives

Here in 2022, the Black Art In America Foundation is attempting to bring to light the unsung imagery of Hinton. In August, the enigmatic photographer’s rediscovered green box of photos was the focus of photography veteran, Morris Alston, who was commissioned by the BAIA Foundation for the digital archiving of much of Hinton’s work. The Jackson, Mississippi resident was brought in for a weeklong residency to go through thousands of images.

“I knew Rufus from somewhere along the way, probably my days in and out of Boston and New York,” reveals Alston, pointing out that “a lot of young Black photographers of that day were in New York ‘cause New York was always popping.” However, “I can’t really pinpoint how I know him, probably through mutual friends. But for all of those who had a camera in our hands, whether it be a still camera or film camera, it was a community of people that knew each other.”

From the images he examined, some depicting student activism in Atlanta’s Vine City of the 1960s, Alston offers that Hinton “was hungry. We all were hungry to get that good image, that image that was somewhere along the same lines as Gordon Parks.” Alston explains how Hinton “emulated what was happening at the time” shooting the subject matter that he did, which was the progressions and movements of Black folks during the civil rights era, whether it be a student strike or some of the stuff he recorded on the Vine when he first started out.” So, along with bundles of celebrity images, “he did whatever other Black photographers did, you know? Stokely’s gonna be here, you gonna run over there and shoot Stokely. Rap Brown’s gonna be over here, you run over there, shoot Rap. Miriam Makeba is gonna be downtown in Washington Square, so you run down there and do that, try to get hits here and there.”  

Stokely Carrmichael War Protest - Rufus Hinton Archive

Stokely Carrmichael War Protest - Rufus Hinton Archives

In an ultimate irony, Alston characterizes Hinton as no different than any of the other young Black photographers capturing the 20th century social movements of the day. But for his own family members, Hinton was very different.

“The fact that he had traveled to and from different places and just certain things that he was involved in” for Hitchcock, was remarkable, be it a prison protest or southern civil rights demonstration. “It was fascinating just to find that stuff out.”

Concerned Black Artists - Rufus Hinton Archives

Concerned Black Artists - Rufus Hinton Archives

“His life was led in a mysterious way because nobody really knew what he was into,” reiterates Hitchcock, the family member responsible for bringing the images from the green box to the attention of Black Art In America. “I wanted to do something to help put that out there because his own family really has no idea of the level of photography that he was on.”

That said, Hitchcock recognizes the bigger picture. “What was important to me was preserving that legacy because he was an actual person, actually shooting this, actually being in the trenches. So when you think about it from that point of view—not just from an archival point of view or that of a picture—but when you think about how a real person did this, that meant something to me.”

“And I just wanted to be able to put that out there so he would have some kind of legacy.”  

AMARI JACKSON is a creator, author, TV/web/film producer, and award-winning journalist. He is author of the 2011 novel, The Savion Sequence; creator/writer/coproducer of the 2012-2014 web series The Book Look; writer/coproducer of the 2016 film Edge of the Pier; and current writer/coproducer of Listen Up! on HBCU GO/Roku TV. He is a former Chief of Staff for a NJ State Senator; a former VP of Communications & Development for the Jamestown Project at Harvard University; and a recipient of several writing fellowships including the George Washington Williams Fellowship from the Independent Press Association. An active ghost writer, song writer, martial artist, and journalist, his writings have appeared in a wide variety of national and regional publications.

 

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