Buried on Page B1, alongside the hum-drum headline “KKK march calm,” a powerful image of race relations in the southern United States was nearly lost. In fact, it almost wasn’t published at all.
And in the 20 years since, this emotionally complex photograph of a Klan-robed toddler playfully touching the riot shield of a bemused African-American state trooper has gone uncelebrated and largely unknown.
Now, thanks to a few twists of fate, the photo has been granted a second life through social media, where each viewer seems to read something different into the image. Is it disturbing? Hopeful? Humorous? Touching? Heartbreaking?
Many who have shared the photo online admit they know little about its origins, which is understandable. Aside from a few basic details, such as the photographer’s name and a rough guess on the year, the full story behind this photo has never appeared online until today.
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After first seeing the photo shared on Facebook a month ago, I decided to track down the photographer, who now describes himself as “a 45-year-old cabinet designer who has nothing to do with pictures.” In a recent phone interview, Todd Robertson shared the full story, which proved even more interesting than I’d imagined.
Of course, it all begins on the day the image was captured: Sept. 5, 1992.
The Ku Klux Klan was holding a rally in the northeast Georgia community of Gainesville, where the white supremacist group hoped to breathe some life into its flagging revival campaign of the late 1980s and early ’90s.
Assigned as a backup photographer for the local daily, The Gainesville Times, was Robertson, a 1991 graduate of the University of Georgia’s Grady School of Journalism. He had a few recurring gigs, including shooting high school football for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but a full-time photojournalism job had proved elusive.
At the Klan rally, there wasn’t a tremendous amount of action for Robertson to record. According to news reports from the day, there were 66 KKK representatives, encircled by three times as many law enforcement personnel. The downtown square was otherwise empty, with about 100 observers at the fringe, mostly there to demonstrate against the Klan.
The white supremacists were out-of-towners with no real local support in Gainesville. “Many people who came to these Klan events were not from here,” recalls Gainesville Times new media editor Michael Beard in an email to me about the photo’s history. “I’ve lived here all my life and can only recall seeing someone in a Klan outfit one single time, standing alone at an intersection trying to hand out papers.”
While reporters and the staff photographer focused on the speakers at the rally and watched for potential signs of conflict, Robertson chose to follow a mother and her two young boys, dressed in white robes and the KKK’s iconic pointy hats.
One of the boys approached a black state trooper, who was holding his riot shield on the ground. Seeing his reflection, the boy reached for the shield, and Robertson snapped the photo. Almost immediately, the mother swooped in and took away the toddler, whom she identified to Robertson as “Josh.” The moment was fleeting, and almost no one noticed it, but Robertson had captured it on film.
And a roll of film seemed to be where it was destined to stay. Back at the newspaper office, Robertson was told his photos weren’t worth developing because the staff photographer had come back with plenty of good images from the rally. A photograph of a Klan leader was selected to be the primary shot for the Local section cover.
On his own initiative, Robertson took his film to a local one-hour photo developer and brought a stack of 4×6 prints back to the newspaper office. He was showing the photo of the young boy and the trooper to a few reporters when the managing editor walked by.
“He grabbed it up, walked directly to the photo guy and said, ‘This picture’s running in the paper,’” Robertson says. “That staff photographer and I are still friends, but we weren’t that day.”
While it only appeared in black-and-white on Page B1 of a small community newspaper, the photo also hit the Associated Press wire, where it sparked some unexpected attention.
Robertson was soon contacted by producers for “The Sally Jessy Raphael Show,” which wanted to feature the young boy and his mother. As with many such requests since then, Robertson wasn’t able to provide any contact information for the family, which he guessed lived in or around Winder, Ga., because of their affiliation with the Klan’s Winder Knights sect.
It’s hard to know where else the photograph ran in those initial days, though Robertson heard of it appearing in several European tabloids.
Gainesville Times editors submitted the shot for a state Associated Press award, which it won in the Feature Photo category. But that, Robertson says, was the photo’s only official recognition.
By all logic, the photo’s legacy should have ended there. The newspaper wasn’t yet posting content to the Internet, so the photo would only live on microfilm. (As recently as December 2012, the newspaper’s editors said they were unsure where to find the original article because the exact date of the rally had been forgotten. Luckily, the Hall County Library was able to help me dig up the scan of the photo’s original appearance in print.)
As for Robertson, he soon decided to give up his dream of being a professional photographer and join his father’s local cabinetry business, Area Decor, where he is now a project manager. He got married, had twins, kept himself plenty busy. When the family travels, he refuses to take along any camera larger than a point-and-shoot, to keep himself from “going overboard and crawling around on the ground trying to get a shot.”
But fate still had plans for Robertson’s photography. In 1999, seven years after the Klan rally photograph was captured, the Southern Poverty Law Center decided to feature it prominently in a new pamphlet called “Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide.”
Even those involved with the original publication don’t remember why or how they dug up Robertson’s photo, but once it was unearthed from the anti-hate organization’s extensive archive of news clippings, everyone knew it was a perfect fit for the publication, where it appears in full color across the booklet’s second page.
“I don’t know who found it or where it came up,” says Penny Weaver, longtime public affairs coordinator for the Alabama-based SPLC, in a phone interview for this story. “But that’s how it’s gotten wide distribution, because we have given away lots and lots of that handbook over the years.”
The nonprofit licensed the photo with Robertson for publication, and he provided them an uncropped color version, which is now prominently displayed in the group’s office. As the pamphlet circulated through multiple printings over the years, Weaver says her group was often contacted by admirers of the photo who wanted to order a poster version or learn more about it. She would refer all inquiries to Robertson, who says he responded to some but not all of the requests.
As online photo sharing exploded in 2011, the photograph appeared (with no caption other than “Awwwww”) on a popular photo blog called The Meta Picture. Right away, commenters began to have a debate that’s now a standard byproduct of the image: Is it cute, sad or disturbing?
“Not awww, this kid is the next white supremacist generation,” notes the first commenter.
“You’re completely missing the point,” responds another. “This kid has no idea how to hate yet. It’s cute. If he becomes ‘the next white supremacist generation’ it won’t be his fault.”
Other bloggers shared the photo and added what little context they could find. Robertson noticed the spike in activity and, in July 2012, even posted his first-ever statement about the photograph as a comment on the blog 22 Words. “I will never be able to live without someone finding this picture,” Robertson wrote, then gave a few reflections on the events of that day.
The slow burn of the photo’s digital rebirth continues to flare up in seemingly random places. On Dec. 10, 2012, the image was shared on Facebook by a gay-rights page called “Have a Gay Day.” The image sparked 1,700 likes and 850 shares in one day.
“I have stared at this picture and wondered what must have been going through that Trooper’s mind,” wrote the gay-rights advocate who posted it to Facebook. “Before the Trooper is an innocent child who is being taught to hate him because of the color of his skin. The child doesn’t understand what he is being taught, and at this point he doesn’t seem to care.”
This comment captures what makes Robertson’s photo so compelling. It’s a fleeting moment, but one that you could spend hours reflecting on, finding different nuances and interpretations. It becomes a sort of Rorschach test for each commenter’s worldview. It might leave you hopeful that hate isn’t a trait we’re born with. Or it might make you depressed about the fact that many children are destined to be corrupted and psychologically misshapen.
Ball State University even built a one-hour lesson plan around the photograph for high school educators as part of the college’s “Learning from a Legacy of Hate” teacher toolkit. Called the “Kiddie Klan Exercise,” it includes questions such as “What do you think is going on in the officer’s head at this moment? What are his facial expressions saying?” and “Would you feel differently about this picture if the officer that ‘Josh’ is interacting with was not African-American?”
“The whole key to that picture is the expression on that trooper’s face,” says the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Penny Weaver. “I think that expression is … what’s the word to describe it? It’s like a sort of sadness.”
Robertson himself interprets the trooper’s reaction as a mix of “disgust and sorrow.”
“They felt sorry for the kid,” he says. “You could tell that kid did not know the difference between that day and Halloween.”
The photo’s online revival has had a complicated effect on Robertson, who thought he had moved past his photojournalism life many years ago. He enjoys seeing the comments and wishes he could help the many viewers who want to know what ever happened to “Josh.” But at the same time, it can feel strange reflecting back on one moment two decades ago.
“I just really don’t even know what to say about it. It seems like it was a whole world ago. It’s almost like another life that I lived 20 years ago.
“I was looking in the right direction, I guess.”
David Griner is a contributing editor for Adweek.com and VP/Director of Digital Content for Alabama-based marketing agency Luckie & Company. He previously served as city editor for a community newspaper in Northern California and as a reporter and political columnist in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He can be reached by email or on Twitter at @Griner.