WATSONVILLE — On the evening of April 4, 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while preparing for a protest march at a Memphis, Tenn. hotel.
Wednesday marks 50 years since the tragedy. Many take the day to commemorate King as well as his many supporters who rallied around him during pivotal years of the Civil Rights Movement.
One of King’s supporters was photojournalist Bob Fitch, who joined King’s organization, The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as its staff photographer in 1965.
Fitch, who was born in Los Angeles and attended UC Berkeley, had resided in Watsonville from 2008 to his death in 2016.
During his time with King, Fitch documented a number of important moments during the Civil Rights Movement and maintained a close relationship with its leader and those surrounding him.
“Bob knew he could only do what he did because he was white,” said Brian Murtha, Fitch’s friend and executor of his estate. “Black photographers of the time were prevented from working — many of them were beaten for even trying. He became an invaluable link in the middle of it all.”
Fitch would continue his activism after moving back to the West. He became heavily involved with the United Farm Workers, documenting the labor rights movement alongside Cesar Chavez. Additionally, Fitch worked extensively with the Santa Cruz Resource Center for Nonviolence and campaigned for affordable housing.
“Bob was a warm, personable guy who was also strongly committed to being a social activist,” Murtha said. “He always maintained that he wasn’t a photographer — he was an activist first and foremost.”
In 2014, about 200,000 images taken by Fitch were donated to the Stanford University Library. Per Fitch’s request, official use of the images are given freely to nonprofit organizations. Some are available to view online at exhibits.stanford.edu.
When asked what he was feeling on the 50th anniversary of King’s death, Murtha replied somberly, “When will we ever learn? It’s obvious that we still desperately need people like King, and like Fitch. We need to keep motivating each other — to keep a conversation going. Only then can we move forward.”