In a year of theatrical speeches, fractious political debates, halting press conferences, solemn news reports and activists’ passionate pleas, it was simple, homemade signs carried by parades of protesters that most captured the outraged — and conflicted — American voice.
Let his death not be in vain
Return the schools to all the people
Overcome hate with love
The streets belong to the people!
Enough is enough! You ignorant men!
Through it all, we were combating an enemy like no other, and the president’s unsteady handling of the U.S. effort raised questions anew about trust in our government. Many of those who felt called to wave their signs were doing so for the first time, and they took solace in the unity around them, despite the long shadow of injustice they were railing against. Wasn’t this, after all, the ultimate responsibility of citizens in a democracy — to stand up and demand accountability? Wasn’t this the essence of the American spirit?
The year was 1968, and photographs of those signs, and all the turbulence that produced them, reflected the sudden chaos that blanketed the country. On the heels of what was referred to as the Summer of Love — a peace-soaked, good-vibes jamboree of hippies and bohemians preaching a far-out brand of optimism that descended on San Francisco like a hail of poppies — 1968 quickly descended into one of the darkest and most violent years in American history, surpassed only by the divide of the Civil War a century before. For the nation, the shift in mood wasn’t just disorienting, but destabilizing.
On April 3, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told a crowd in Memphis: “Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.” The next day he was assassinated, and in the days ahead more than 100 cities were ravaged by riots.
Two months later Sen. Robert Kennedy had just won the California and South Dakota Democratic primaries in his bid to be president. To the small crowd of supporters and reporters at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, he said, “I think that we can end the divisions within the United States.” Minutes later he, too, was gunned down.
As we can see by poring through the photographic record of that year, Americans seemed to live in the streets. Black, Brown, White people marched for progress in the civil rights movement, and also an end to the Vietnam War. They protested school segregation. They migrated to the Democratic National Convention, in Chicago, where police officers, Army soldiers and National Guardsmen swarmed protesters and swung their batons and rifles at them like lumberjacks. There were marches for women’s liberation, a sanitation strike, and against the Miss America pageant. America seemed to be made up of two countries, of two peoples with entirely different wants for their way of life.
To speak out in crowds in 1968 presented risks of bodily harm; still, the protest signs kept bobbing above the faceoffs. The messages were written in paint or markers, but given all the killings and beatings that went on that year, they could have just as easily been written in blood.
Photographers have, of course, always been essential witnesses in all corners of the world, their images letting us take measure of who we are. In that way, the pictures of 1968 feel particularly — and achingly — familiar, given 2020’s collective level of rage, violence, destruction, political disunion and wariness of our neighbors. And as the great photographers of 1968 did, the contributors to this issue of the magazine have not only captured our frightful reckoning but also zoomed in on, if you peer closely enough, the subtle signals of how we will endure.
In April 2020, with the coronavirus spreading steadily throughout the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged all Americans to wear masks in public. And so the fundamental act of breathing — an act tied to cries for justice in 2014 after a New York police officer kept Eric Garner in a chokehold as he repeated “I can’t breathe” — became one more way to die. People left their homes sparingly, and when they did — for neighborhood walks, for runs to the grocery store — they were struck by the emptiness of our downtown areas, like deserted movie sets. But as these pictures document, the streets didn’t stay empty for long.
In May, another Black man, named George Floyd, this time in Minneapolis, managed to get out the words “I can’t breathe” despite having a police officer’s knee pushed into his neck. Floyd would die in a matter of minutes, but the breath that went out of his body went into countless others all over the planet, and within days protesters flowed through the streets, demanding police reform and an end to government brutality against Black people. Photographers showed us that in a sea of partially covered faces, George Floyd’s face was everywhere in an afterlife of murals, T-shirts and more handmade signs.
Amid the pandemic, a return to the streets brought risks beyond violent clashes, and the evidence of those risks was always looming. In newspapers and online, we gazed numbly at images of morgues where bodies in cardboard boxes stacked up like packages in a warehouse.
As summer ended, the confrontations pressed on. Protesters clamored for overdue racial justice; this brought out groups with their own mantras and unfamiliar monikers but deeply familiar, and troubling, instincts, such as those of the Proud Boys. With cable news anchors squalling over each other and tweets from our president in all-caps, 2020 was surely the loudest year in our country’s history. Front-line workers, meanwhile, carried on in the latest incarnation of American bravery. Underequipped and overly courageous, they went about their miraculous acts in divine silence.
The president wore a mask — not one that would protect him from the virus but one of indifference to the pandemic casualties and racial unrest. He took to referring to the coronavirus as the plague — “the plague from China” — but the world could see that this wasn’t the only plague in America.
In the fall, photographers turned their lenses on President Trump’s strident reelection campaign and his supporters — the latest entourage to indulge in their own chants. Challenger Joe Biden’s eventual reemergence on the campaign trail was masked and more of a whisper, but that was enough for many. There were reports again of that political yeti, the undecided voter, but this time, no one really fell for it. Everyone seemed to know how everyone else would vote, and, in another grim sign of the times, discussions centered on the jeopardy of voting in person vs. the jeopardy of votes being lost in the mail.
But as these pictures make clear, the whole year was a tour through jeopardy of one kind or another. The best aspect of the presidential race was that it forced us to confront a future beyond the next few weeks and months — and to name a new dream for our country. It turned out that as a nation voters found Biden’s vision of America more inspiring, but his victory in itself didn’t begin to erase what had come before it.
For future generations wanting to better understand 2020 — and what came after it — pictures like the ones featured here will be an essential dispatch. The way those future generations will make sense of so much bitterness and suffering in the America of 2020, though, will depend on what their parents and their parents’ parents ultimately learned from that fateful year, and what, in their wisdom, they saw fit to pass on.
Mouths Covered, Eyes Wide Open
From Paris to New York, the normalcies of life, despite a global pandemic. Photographs by Peter Turnley
A Way to Stay Safe
In Los Angeles, Barbara Davidson’s portraits serve as a time capsule of the pandemic and capture how masks have become part of our identity now.
Rage and Requiems
Amidst the injustice and cries for change, Dee Dwyer still found people coming together.
A New Monument
In Richmond, a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee has been turned into a shrine for the times. Contact sheet by John McDonnell
The Sound of George Floyd
The last pleas from a killing that changed the world. Photo illustrations by May-Ying Lam
“Mama!” One of the first words uttered by many infants, it was one of George Floyd’s last. As he cried out, police officer Derek Chauvin was crushing him into the pavement.
Those words — the calls for his late mother, for mercy to let him breathe, for someone to tell his children he loved them — began a chain reaction.
These pictures pay homage to how voice gives birth to others speaking out by showing faces and scenes of protest within the sound waves of Floyd’s last words. Continuing the cycle, people have begun to discuss how to reform policing, and look inward at their own biases.
When the lives of others are at stake, no one can afford to be silent.
Top image: Police: “Relax.” George Floyd: “I can’t breathe.”
The Living and the Dead
In Maryland, scenes of loss, protests, celebrations, democracy, resiliency and endurance. Photographs by Michael Robinson Chávez
Where Do We Go From Here?
Activists’ demands for the future — and ourselves. Photographs by Jelani Rice
Voices All Around Us
The images from Mark Peterson/Redux Pictures show a landscape filled with messages about what we should want.
Hope in America
Having just voted in Miami, these citizens wrote out their dreams for the country. Photo illustrations by Jonathan Frydman
Peter Turnley’s photographs have been featured on the cover of Newsweek more than 40 times. He has won the Overseas Press Club of America’s award for best photographic reporting from abroad and has published eight books. These photographs are from his new book “A New York-Paris Visual Diary: The Human Face of Covid-19.”
Barbara Davidson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and an Emmy-winning filmmaker. She is working on her Guggenheim Fellowship photographing survivors of gun violence across the United States using a large-format film camera.
Dee Dwyer enjoys using cameras to document experiences of travel and community. She lives in Washington with her two children.
John McDonnell has been a Washington Post staff photographer for four decades. Since 1989, he has photographed for the sports section.
May-Ying Lam is a freelance photographer and multimedia artist based in Houston. Previously, she was a features and magazine photo editor at The Washington Post.
Michael Robinson Chávez is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for The Washington Post. He is also a three-time winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Photojournalism and was named Photographer of the Year by Pictures of the Year International in 2020.
Jelani Rice’s work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, the New Yorker, People and New York Magazine. He lives in New York.
Mark Peterson’s work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, Fortune, Time, ESPN the Magazine, and Geo, as well as many other publications. He lives in New York.
Jonathan Frydman came to photography by way of sneaking into hip-hop shows in South Florida. Since then, his work has focused on the hip-hop world.
Dudley M. Brooks is the deputy director of photography. David Rowell is the deputy editor of the magazine.
Editing by Richard Just and Jennifer Abella. Design and development by Clare Ramirez. Design editing by Suzette Moyer and Matt Callahan.