Maurice Sorrell captured the story of the civil rights movement in the Deep South from its earliest days; using his camera, he preserved in pictures such historic events as the march from Montgomery to Selma, Alabama, and other events. In his photographic career that spanned more than three decades, he also was eyewitness to urban riots of the 1950s and 1960s and captured the images of nine U.S. presidents and many members of Congress. His work regularly appeared in Ebony and Jet magazines, products of his employer, Johnson Publications.
Sorrell was born about 1914 in Washington, D.C. He became fascinated with the camera at an early age, capturing family gatherings and neighborhood events. He graduated from Armstrong High School, where he took full responsibility for class photographs. Sorrell worked as a laborer at the Bureau of Printing and Engraving but sought unsuccessfully to become a photographer's apprentice. In 1955, Sorrell accepted a photography position at the Pentagon, but because of his race he was restricted to work in the darkroom and forbidden to go out on assignments. He remained there for two years and then, though inexperienced professionally, left to become a freelance photographer.
As early as 1946 Sorrell had purchased a 4x4 Speed Graphic camera and shot local weddings and anniversary celebrations. He received some formal training in a photography program that the U.S. Department of Agriculture offered, and then, after he left the Pentagon, he launched his career as a freelance photographer. From this time on, he contributed regularly to the popular weekly newspaper the Afro-American. Now the public saw photographs of Washington's black events that were published in that newspaper.
In 1961, Sorrell joined the White House Photographers Association, becoming the first black to gain admission to that prestigious organization. His membership, however, came only after a dispute that reached national proportions. While attending a press conference, President John F. Kennedy was criticized for planning to participate in an awards banquet for the all-white photographers' group. After overcoming his embarrassment, Kennedy uncharacteristically stumbled through words as he implied that he would investigate the racial discrimination. A Jet magazine reporter had questioned Kennedy and in so doing created a situation that left Sorrell, the photographer for Afro-American, as the sole candidate for the diversity assignment. Sorrell's career suddenly improved. He took full advantage of the obvious opportunity, and a few weeks later joined Johnson Publishing Company's Washington team at the awards banquet.
Sorrell met some difficulties with the elite White House Photographers' Association. Early in his days at the White House, other photographers had no difficulty boxing out the comparatively short Sorrel, who stood 5 feet 4 inches; he counteracted them by using his elbows to jostle for a better position. But blacks held him in high regard and, according to Jet magazine for July 13, 1998, when they visited the White House they looked for "the little guy with the curly locks from JPC." Sorrell responded by taking their photograph and recording what was clearly their special place in history.
- Born in Washington, D.C.
- Begins photographing local weddings and celebrations
- Works in photography position at the Pentagon
- Becomes first black member of the White House Photographers Association
- Joins staff of Johnson Publishing Company as photographer; photographs civil rights movement of the South
- Retires from Johnson Publishing Company
- Dies in Washington, D.C. on June 22
Captures the Civil Rights Movement through the Lens
Johnson Publishing Company hired Sorrell in 1962 and then sent him south to cover the turbulent civil rights movement. The next year, he documented the historic March on Washington. Both Ebony and Jet magazines—products of that firm—published the historic images that Sorrell captured. It was not uncommon for Sorrell to be confronted by angry crowds and police dogs or to be exposed to tear gas as he photographed civil rights leaders, participants, and events. Among the movement's leaders, he photographed: Martin Luther King Jr., Benjamin Hooks, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young. While with the publishing company, Sorrell also visited more than twenty-four countries. He took seven official trips to Africa and accompanied such officials as Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. He also photographed nine U.S. presidents and took the first portrait of the Congressional Black Caucus. He remained news photographer for Johnson Publishing Company in its Washington bureau from 1962 to 1993. A man with compassion, Sorrell accompanied back to Washington the body of Whitney Young, who died in 1971 while swimming near Lagos. Sorrell retired from Johnson Publishing Company in 1994, after spending thirty-four years as news photographer for the Washington bureau.
Sorrell died of a heart ailment in Washington, D.C.'s Providence Hospital, on June 22, 1998, at the age of eighty-four. His survivors included his wife Beatrice, a public health nurse to whom he was married for fifty-two years, and a sister. After his death, he was honored with the 2000 African American Photographers Association's Lifetime Achievement Award. Others honored him as well; for example, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater displayed Sorrell's work in a photographic exhibit that honored the Selma to Montgomery march.
Sorrell knew how to relate to people. A gentle man and an expert with the camera, he was known for capturing "the essence of a moment in a single portrait," wrote Louie Estrada for the Washington Post. He knew how to put his subjects at ease and to direct them to the position that suited him best and which enabled him to get the best shot. Sorrell was a mentor to many young photographers. He also helped young photographers to have their work published. According to Estrada in the Washington Post article, Jason Miccolo Johnson of the Exposure Group, an African American photographers organization, said that Sorrell "was like a grandfather figure who was worthy of a lot of respect. He paved the way for many of us, and we know it wasn't easy."
Estrada, Louie. "News Photographer Maurice Sorrell, 84, Dies." Washington Post, 25 June 1998.
"Maurice Sorrell, 84, Ebony Photographer." Washington Times, 28 June 1998.
"Pioneer Jet Photographer Maurice Sorrell Dies at 84 in Washington, D.C." Jet 94 (13 July 1998): 17-18.
Campbell, Jo. "Reach Out, and Do It Now!" Shore Journal. Editorial. http://shorejournal.com (Accessed 10 July 2001).