ROCKY MOUNT, Va. — When Gene Herrick photographed Rosa Parks being fingerprinted by a white police officer, he didn’t know it would become an iconic image of the civil rights movement.
The photograph is one of the first images that pop up when you search Parks’ name on Google. It’s on display at The Associated Press offices in New York City. And it hangs above Herrick’s desk in his Rocky Mount home.
But when Herrick took the photo on Feb. 22, 1956, it was just another day in the life of an Associated Press photographer.
“As a photojournalist, you don’t really think about them being icons later on,” Herrick said. “You just think about the spot news at the moment, what would make a shot for the AP wire.”
During his 28-year career with the AP, Herrick captured historic moments in U.S. history with his camera. Herrick, 91, is best known for his work photographing the Korean War and the civil rights movement. This year, his contributions will be recognized when he is inducted into the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame.
“For Virginia to honor me this way, I’m just so humbled by it,” Herrick said. “I don’t know what to do. It kind of takes your breath away from you.”
Dorothy Abernathy, who also worked for the AP, nominated Herrick for the hall of fame. She met Herrick when she was asked to travel to Rocky Mount to record an oral history with Herrick for the AP’s corporate archives.
“It was a great interview,” Abernathy said. “I was really impressed with his story and his energy.”
When writing the nomination letter, Abernathy decided to search for Herrick’s work on the internet. His photos popped up on the NBC and USA Today websites. Articles reflecting on civil rights always seemed to include Herrick’s pictures, Abernathy said.
“He was at some really big moments in history and managed to capture those moments in a very effective way,” she said.
Herrick got his start at the wire service when he was just a teenager. As a high school student in Columbus, Ohio, Herrick worked as a copy boy from midnight to 8 a.m. for 50 cents an hour. At 18, he took a job with the AP in Cleveland, where he lived with a photographer, whom he often assisted.
One night, when that photographer was unavailable to cover a Cleveland Indians game, Herrick caught his break.
“They’ve got to be stupid,” Herrick remembers thinking to himself. “Me cover a ball game for the AP? Unheard of.”
Not long after, the boss in New York asked if Herrick wanted to be an AP photographer, something Herrick said shocked him as much as learning he’d be honored in the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame.
At the time, Herrick noted, photographers needed five years’ experience at a metropolitan paper to even be considered by the AP. There was “nobody less prepared than I was,” Herrick said.
After working a few years in cities such as Indianapolis and Memphis, Tennessee, Herrick got an opportunity to join the foreign service. When the Korean War broke out, he volunteered to be an overseas correspondent. A week later, Herrick was on his way to Korea.
But first, he had to get a passport. Herrick didn’t have any of the necessary documentation to apply for one, but luckily, his mother was in town visiting. So they went to the federal building together and, Herrick said, his mother “swore that I was it, that she born me.” Unbelievably, he said, it worked.
Though some might be hesitant to head into a conflict zone, Herrick was not.
“You’re a journalist. Good journalists want to go where the action is, wherever it is,” he said.
When Herrick arrived at the airport, he was greeted by other war correspondents.
“The first thing I said when I got off the plane, I said, ‘You guys stink.’ And they said, ‘You will too in a week.’ Baths are few and far between,” Herrick recalled with a laugh.
The first lesson Herrick learned in Korea was to be aware of his surroundings. He recalled standing in the middle of a dirt road shooting pictures of four soldiers carrying a wounded solider on a litter coming straight at him, with airplanes overhead. He saw “pips” of dirt popping up around his feet, and heard a popping sound, but thought nothing of it until a GI noted they were caused by bullets.
When covering the civil rights movement, Herrick said, he had to sit down with himself to consider the issues: Why did whites think and feel the way they did? Why did blacks? Journalists with the AP, Herrick says, are “right down the middle.” They have to see all sides of a story.
“That was probably one of the greatest lessons I ever gave myself as a journalist, to be balanced and try to understand, any story I go on, what is that person’s perspective,” Herrick said. “Whether it’s right or wrong, what is it?”
He carried that lesson with him when covering the Emmett Till murder trial, in which two white men were tried in the death of a 14-year-old black boy. Herrick got to know the defendants, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, well.
Herrick told the defendants he wasn’t for or against them, and was there to cover the story. They respected that, and it earned Herrick opportunities for exclusive photographs. Milam wouldn’t let anybody take a picture or do a story about him without Herrick’s permission.
In addition to photographing civil rights icon Rosa Parks, Herrick also captured images of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The one for which he is best known shows King being kissed on the cheek by his wife, Coretta Scott King, on the courthouse steps in Montgomery, Alabama.
He spent time with King before he was catapulted to a leadership role in the civil rights movement, when he first came to Montgomery as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Observing King, Herrick said it was easy to tell he was witnessing “history in the making.”
“Even as a journalist, you’d sit there and go wow, this is very poetic, this is very important,” Herrick said. “And we’re not easily impressed, the AP guys.”
He also covered King’s death. Herrick was working as a photo editor in Chicago at the time, and hopped on a plane to Memphis upon receiving word of King’s assassination. He stood in the bathtub, looking out the window from which the killer had fired the fatal shot.
Journalism has changed a lot in the years since Herrick took early retirement from the AP in 1971, particularly when it comes to access. Herrick covered a number of presidents and vice presidents, and was able to travel alongside them, close to the action, and sit down with them privately.
“Today, you’ve got a president that’s condemning the media,” Herrick said.
Bethanie Constant, who works with the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame at Virginia Commonwealth University, said now more than ever journalists must be recognized for their important contributions. And, though he hung up his camera in 1971, that includes Herrick.
“It’s amazing that he’s gotten to the age of 91 and hasn’t been recognized in this way before, and we wanted to make sure that he was,” Constant said.
Herrick still takes photos occasionally, but not often. He misses it, but has the memories — and countless photographs — to help him reflect on his 28-year career, for which he is thankful.
“God and the AP have given me opportunities I could never have had,” Herrick said. “I mean, I’m the luckiest kid in the world to have done what I’ve done.”