Jock Lauterer, adjunct professor in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, trained under Wallace in the '60s as a photographer for the DTH.
“Because of the access and the rapport that he had with the cops and with the demonstrators, everybody just let him go anywhere and almost take anything,” Lauterer said. “If you look at these pictures, he's not 20 feet away, he's right in there.”
His photos, many of which are a part of the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s collection, depict demonstrations by Black Chapel Hill residents in many of the segregated establishments in the town.
“The (Daily) Tar Heel felt that the civil rights movement in Chapel Hill was important because while we did not have a lot of Black students, there were Black students on campus,” Wallace said in a lecture at the Hussman School in 2012. “The idea that we had students on campus who could not walk down to Franklin Street and go to any restaurant, or any movie theater or any of the other facilities that were down there was something that editorially, the editors that we worked for, felt was not right.”
Hugh Stevens, a former editor of the DTH who worked with Wallace, described not only Wallace’s distinct talent for photography, but a keen creative vision that helped lead the newspaper.
On Nov. 23, 1963, a day after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the DTH ran a front page consisting of only a single oversized photo: the fallen president, from two years before, on a visit to UNC — taken by Wallace, of course.
“That’s probably one of the most famous, if not the most famous front page ever published by The Daily Tar Heel,” Stevens said. “Not because of the story that was on it, but because of the photograph that was on it — and that photograph could never have been there had it not been for Jim Wallace first having taken the photograph, and second being assiduous enough to figure out how to get it done.”
Stevens described a hectic newsroom the night of the assassination, trying to figure out what to run in the paper that would be meaningful to a student population. Wallace suggested running the photo, to connect UNC students to the scene.
But in those days, each photo had to be engraved to the exact size needed for the paper, Stevens said, and they didn’t have a plate large enough to make the impact they needed. Wallace, however, had a contact at The Durham Herald and persuaded them to engrave the photo for the DTH, making it back to the office at nearly midnight to seal the deal.
After graduation, Wallace worked as a stringer for a variety of major outlets, including Time and Newsweek. He later began a 25-year career as the director and curator of imaging and photographic services at the Smithsonian Institution.
According to the Marian Cheek Jackson Center, Wallace informed his friend Lonnie Bunch, the current secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, that he had a collection of images documenting civil rights efforts in Chapel Hill.
Bunch suggested, upon seeing Wallace’s collection of photos from the 1960s, that he publish the images in a book — as well as allow them to be added to the museum’s permanent collection.
Wallace published his book, "Courage in the Moment: The Civil Rights Struggle, 1961-1964," in 2012. The book, a collection of photos accompanied by text by writer Paul Dickson, not only includes photos of sit-ins, marches and clashes with police in Chapel Hill, but also images Wallace took at the 1963 March on Washington.
He was able to identify many of the demonstrators with help from the Marian Cheek Jackson Center, an organization that serves Chapel Hill’s historically Black communities. The center held open houses at St. Joseph C.M.E. with families and friends of civil rights leaders who looked through Wallace’s photos to name the many participants.
“‘Courage in the Moment’ was originally suggested by Dover, the publisher of the book, because they inaccurately thought that it took a lot of courage for me to take the photographs,” Wallace said during a lecture in 2012. “... That wasn't at all the case. We knew the people who were leading the marches, we knew the members from the churches, we knew what was happening. The 'courage' I allowed to stick in the title, because it was the courage of people living in this community who put their jobs on the line, who put their freedom on the line in some cases, to change their community — and that is a big commitment. And that, to me, was ‘courage in the moment.’”