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Victims of COVID-19: Civil Rights Photographer Theodore Gaffney

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

More than 47,000 people have lost their lives to COVID-19 here in the U.S. One of them was Theodore Gaffney, a photographer who risked his life while documenting the 1961 Freedom Riders.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Gaffney was African American, born and raised in Washington, D.C. After a career in the Army, he picked up photography and became a sought-after freelancer.

KELLY: In 1961, Jet magazine asked him to join the Freedom Riders on a trip to New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THEODORE GAFFNEY: I wasn't given any instructions, but I know that I was to take pictures of whatever happened.

CHANG: That's Gaffney talking to PBS in 2010. He said he wasn't an activist. He was there to document what happened.

KELLY: But that didn't mean he refused to put himself in harm's way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAFFNEY: It was more dangerous to be a photographer than a Freedom Rider because they don't want documentation of things that happened.

CHANG: At bus terminals across the South, Gaffney photographed the Riders crossing the color line and the violence they encountered.

KELLY: It got so bad in Birmingham that then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy had Gaffney and the Freedom Riders flown to New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAFFNEY: It felt good when that plane got off that runway (laughter). I'd rather take a chance on getting killed in a plane crash than to get beat to death with iron pipes.

CHANG: Gaffney survived his trip to the South. He continued working as a photographer for many years, photographing several presidents and Queen Elizabeth.

KELLY: Theodore Gaffney died on April 12. He was 92 years old. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.