In its first issue, the Southern Courier declared itself to be “a paper for the people.” From July 1965 to December 1968 the weekly publication covered topics important to Alabama’s African American residents, who were often ignored by the mainstream media. A young, biracial staff ran the paper from Montgomery, sometimes recruiting reporters from nearby communities.
The Courier published hard news, but it also gave readers a platform for sharing their views and experiences. Key to this representation were the images in each issue, and no one contributed more to that visual record than James H. (Jim) Peppler, who served as principal photographer and photo editor for three years.
Peppler, a native of Philadelphia, arrived in Montgomery just after graduating from college in 1965. His work at the Courier ran the full journalistic spectrum: from individuals and events of national renown, to grassroots civil rights efforts, to local domestic and social life. He handled assignments fairly and objectively, but always with compassion and a genuine interest in the people he met. By the time he left Montgomery for a position at Newsday in 1968, he had honed the style that would characterize his entire career.
Over the four decades he spent as a photojournalist, Peppler developed an uncommon perspective regarding his work. He came to believe that images belong not only to their creators, but also to the subjects represented in them. With this philosophy, he approached the Alabama Department of Archives and History about a large collection of his Courier negatives. He wanted to place the images at a repository that would both protect the material and make it easily available to those he photographed. The Archives accepted the negatives in 2009 and digitized all 11,000 of them over the next three years.
The collection has proven to be a valuable resource for researchers, but perhaps the most significant responses have come from the people who knew the faces and places firsthand—the very people Peppler had hoped to reach, the same people the Courier was established to serve.