Sunday, May 8, 2016

Bob Fitch, 1937-2016: Progressive activist chronicled historical movements as a participant and observer

Bob Fitch, 1937-2016: Progressive activist chronicled historical movements as a participant and observer

By Wallace Baine, Santa Cruz Sentinel

POSTED: 05/02/16, 4:56 PM PDT

Longtime photojournalist of migrant workers and the civil rightLongtime photojournalist of migrant workers and the civil rights movement Bob Fitch is framed by some of his iconic photographs as he works in his Watsonville home in 2014 when Stanford University began archiving his work. Fitch was 76 when he died in Watsonville Friday. (Dan Coyro -- Santa Cruz Sentinel file)

WATSONVILLE >> Though he created some of the most vivid and compelling photographs associated with the civil rights movement and farmworkers movement, Bob Fitch was not always comfortable with the term “journalist.” There is a sense of professional detachment to that term, and though you can use a lot of words to describe Fitch, “detached” is certainly not one of them.

The Watsonville-based photographer and activist died Friday at the age of 76 after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease. He leaves behind a considerable legacy of political activism and volunteerism in a wide range of fields from nonviolence to labor rights to economic and racial equality.

But Fitch is best known for his work as a photographer, documenting the civil rights movement as a staff member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by Martin Luther King Jr., and later following Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union. Among the political figures that Fitch photographed were King, Chavez, Joan Baez, Dorothy Day, Ron Dellums and The Rev. Daniel Berrigan, the pacifist poet and Jesuit priest who died Saturday.

In 2002, one of Fitch’s images was used by the U.S. Postal Service to honor Chavez. Fitch said that the stamp was an “honor but a disappointment” pointing to the Post Office’s decision to drop out the background on the original photo, which showed the red-and-black flag of United Farm Workers and replace it with an agricultural field.

“He had a strong moral compass,” said friend and fellow activist Bob Cooney who had known Fitch in a professional and personal capacity since the 1970s. “But he had a wonderful sense of humor as well. He wasn’t a polemical type of person. He was straightforward, but he liked to have his fun too.”

Locally, Fitch was well-known for his work with the Resource Center for Nonviolence. Striking up a friendship with the Center’s director, the late-Scott Kennedy, Fitch was hired as the Center’s volunteer and outreach coordinator, living on the premises as well. He held that position for seven years, after which he moved to Watsonville where he continued to pursue activist work.

“He was really an organizer and an activist,” said Anita Heckman of the Resource Center. “He was always good at making connections in the media, in the labor movement, in many communities. And he donated a lot of his photos to the Resource Center for us to make posters for our events, and he was adamant of how those photos were used. He wanted to make sure other groups weren’t taking advantage of the photos and they were being used for the benefit of the Resource Center.”

That openness about his photographic work led him to donate his collections to Stanford University, on the stipulation that they be made available for free for any nonprofit organization.

“Bob would often say, ‘Hey, I’m big and I’m loud,’” said Heckman. “And he could be overbearing and a bit of a know-it-all. But he always tried to temper that in groups and keep quiet so that others could be heard. But the thing about Bob, he wasn’t just talking. He was talking from hard experience.”

Maria Gitin is the author of “ This Bright Light of Ours,” a memoir of her work in the Deep South in the 1960s, to which Fitch donated four of his photos. Gitin said that Fitch had a “great generosity of spirit” but was disdainful of commercialism. He could be curmudgeonly and he was not always in step in with more modern politically correct, social-media-saturated modes of political activism.

Gitin said that he often used the term “Afro-American,” an outdated term that was replaced by “black” and “African-American.”

“Most of us care a lot what other people think of us, particularly white folks when it comes to these kinds of things,” said Gitin. “But Bob was like, ‘I know what I’m doing, and I know what I stand for.’”

Bob Fitch

Born: July 20, 1939 in Los Angeles.

Died: April 29, 2016 in Watsonville.

Occupation: Originally ordained as a minister, he began his career as a photographer for Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. Later he became staff photographer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where he traveled throughout the Deep South with Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists. Later, he worked for the California Department of Housing in developing affordable housing and after retiring from his state position, he settled in Santa Cruz where he worked with the Resource Center for Nonviolence as its volunteer coordinator. He had lived in Watsonville for the past nine years.

Photography: Bob Fitch maintained an archive of thousands of his photos taken during the civil rights and farmworkers movements, and donated them to Stanford University where they can be viewed and downloaded here.

Family: He leaves behind daughter Nicole “Makawa” Alexander, of Colorado Springs, Colorado; and sons Daniel Robert Jaxon Ravens of Seattle who serves as the chair of the Democratic Party of Washington state, and Benjamin Andrew Fitch, an actor living in Los Angeles.

Memorial: A memorial will be held at 2 p.m., May 27, at Peach United Church, 900 High St., in Santa Cruz with a potluck meal to follow in the Fellowship Hall.

No comments: