Legendary civil rights photographer, Theodore Gaffney


By: WBRZ Staff, Washington Post

Gaffney was a well-known Washington D.C.-based photographer who took pictures of numerous U.S. presidents and even Queen Elizabeth, but he was most recognized for the images he took during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.

The Washington Post reports that in the spring of 1961, Gaffney was asked to accompany the Freedom Riders, a group of activists from across the country, as they carried out a plan to challenge segregation in the South by riding Greyhound and Trailways buses in areas that were reserved for ‘whites only.’

They hoped to facilitate change by sitting in the front of the buses with white people, using whites-only restrooms in bus terminals and eating at whites-only lunch counters.

As a veteran who’d served in the Army during World War II Gaffney was no stranger to conflict.

In addition to this, he was the descendant of people who’d been enslaved at a plantation near the town of Gaffney, South Carolina, making him no stranger to racial inequality as well.

Before accompanying the Freedom Riders as a photographer, Gaffney became one of the first African Americans to take photos inside the White House and for The Washington Post.

Despite his many accomplishments, Gaffney admitted that he was nervous about traveling with the Freedom Ryders.

“Well, I was wondering if I was crazy,” Gaffney said during an interview. “They took a nonviolent course . . . before they left. I don’t know how they train you to be nonviolent when you’re getting your head beaten. I was afraid I might..not come back.”  He had good reason to be nervous. 

When the group went to a bus station in Anniston, Alabama racists attacked the windows and cut the bus tires. When the Greyhound eventually left the station, its tires blew out and white protesters surrounded the bus and set it on fire before police arrived. The Freedom Riders escaped, but the image of the burned-out bus was seen all around the world in press coverage. Gaffney not only lived through those momentous times, but captured powerful images that he was able to share with the world.  He succumbed to COVID-19 on April 12, 2020 at the age of 92. Gaffney is survived by his wife, Maria, and their two sons, Theodore and Walter.