Danny provides detailed snapshot of life alongside giants like Martin Luther King Jr and John Lewis

Mike Cohen
13 min readApr 8, 2024


Jewish Telegraph, March 2024

DANNY and wife Nancy at the Sante Fe Maximum Security Penitentiary

PHOTOGRAPHER and filmmaker Danny Lyon is a difficult man to interview.
Let me rephrase that: the 82-year-old is incredibly friendly and talkative — and has mindblowing stories from his time with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
But the problem — apart from the dodgy phone reception from his Bernalillo, New Mexico, home — is that his new memoir This is My Life I’m Talking About (Damiani, £39) is packed with his stories in great detail.
It means that every question I ask is greeted with “you can read about that in the book”.
Danny is the epitome of ‘been there, done that, got the t-shirt’.
“It was exhilarating,” he said about photographing the Civil Rights Movement. “You’re not frightened because the other people are so much braver.
“So I’m at risk of getting jailed or getting hit in the head. But then you meet people who were really abused or beaten, or shot or worse. And so that kind of bravery was inspiring . . . and exciting too.
“I didn’t want to get killed. When the bullets started flying, I thought, ‘I could get killed doing this. And I’m only 22 years old’. I didn’t like that at all.”
Danny begins his story in Russia. His mother Beba Henkin was born in the Pale in 1907 — the same year his father, Ernst Lyon, who became a doctor, was born in the German state of Saar.
He recalls how Hitler would walk past his father in Bavaria before he became Chancellor of Germany.
Ernst escaped to America in 1934, while Beba — who was renamed Rebecca by immigration officers — arrived at New York Harbour as a 15-year-old.
Danny was born in 1942 in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in Kew Gardens, Queens.
Of his father, Danny recalled how he was always filming on eight millimetre film.
He said: “He lived through the First World War as a child.
“By his 20s, he was interested in photography. Photography was very popular among the German bourgeoisie, which is what he was part of.
“His films have survived and I made a couple of films out of them.”
Danny recalled how he and his older brother Leonard visited Europe when he was 17.
“We started in Amsterdam and drove through Germany, Austria and Italy,” he said.
“We visited where my father grew up in Saarbruecken.
“When my father was young, his best friends was named Hans Buster, who was a regular German.
“So Leonard and I visited him, and he had a nice house up on the hill in Austria.
“And he started talking about Hitler, And he saw him as a kind of comic figure.
“He thought it was so silly. But unfortunately, Hitler wasn’t joking.”
Danny writes about visiting Dachau concentration camp.
“The camera was making me a lot braver than I actually was,” he writes in This is My Life I’m Talking About. “I was looking through a lens and a prism at a horror and I was making something.
“I was clutching a metal and glass machine, a separation between me and what was out there.”
He also recalls how on that trip he had his first sexual encounter in Italy with the daughter of a man who died in the Wehrmacht fighting for Hitler.
Back in America, Danny studied history and philosophy at the University of Chicago, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1963.
In 1962, he hitchhiked to Cairo, Illinois, after his junior year in Chicago.
On his first day in Cairo, he was inspired by a speech civil rights activist John Lewis gave in a church.
Danny joined a march to a segregated swimming pool where a young black girl was hit by a lorry.
This led to his involvement in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and he became a room-mate of Lewis.
“I was lucky to know him,” Danny told me. “He was a wonderful person.
“President Biden was speaking recently, I think he made the State of the Union for Congress, and he mentioned John Lewis. And he said, ‘we miss him’. I agree I miss him.”
He added: “There would still have been a civil rights movement without John.
“There were many others like Diane Nash, Courtland Cox and James Forman, who could step forward.
“In many ways, John was a figurehead because he was from Alabama. He was the real thing.”
Danny was also a good friend of SNCC co-founder Julian Bond.
“Julian and John were very, very different people,” he said. “Julian’s father was a university president; very intellectual. John wasn’t any of those things.
“The SNCC had a lot of Jewish supporters, but when Black Power emerged, a lot of support for the SNCC fell away.”
He had many run-ins with the police and tells a story in his book about being told to say that he had a black grandmother — but instead he says grandfather.
“That’s a very funny story, but it’s not a funny story,” he said.
“I went to a high school of 4,000 people, which was 90 per cent Jewish, in Queens. When I grew up, there were more Jewish people in New York City than in Israel,
“So that’s the world I’m coming from. And you know, it’s a very bourgeois, middle class world. And then I’m plunged into a black world but in a southern black world, which is, of course, completely different economically. And there’s a totally different culture.
“I have dark curly hair. And I mangle the whole line, because I’m confronted with a policeman who’s very angry with me. And I’m supposed to say that, one of my grandmother’s was a ‘negro’, but I say my grandfather, and that enrages them because this is an insane idea that there was such an assault on black manhood in my church and all of its pretty disgusting.
“People did the same thing to Jews, that one of the crimes a Jewish person could commit would be to have an affair with a gentile.”
The policeman had actually threatened to kill him because they “didn’t mix the races down here”.
Danny left the area so his photos would not be confiscated.
In 1963, he returned, but the SNCC was reluctant to bring him aboard as their photographer.
He gained acceptance after being smuggled into a prison in Georgia to take photos of high-school girls who had been arrested at the Leesburg Stockade without any charges against them.
Danny’s pictures for the SNCC appeared in The Movement: documentary of a struggle for equality, a book about the Civil Rights Movement.
Danny also made a film called SNCC — available to watch for free at vimeo.com/483738977
“In the film, I’m talking to Dottie Miller, also a Jewish person from New York,” he explained.
“And she’s probably more of a leftist than me and had been involved in SNCC for six years, much longer than I was.
“And I go back to interview her and she’s in her 80s. And she says, ‘We were lucky to be there’. It’s true, we were lucky to be there because it wasn’t our fight, quote, unquote. But it was a remarkable moment in American history.
“There were remarkable people. I was around Martin Luther King Jr a few times. I got to live with John Lewis. We became very close friends.
“One after another, these people were giants of American history. And they were emerging in this moment of a revolution in the South.
“It attracted a generation of great people, great African Americans to come together to create what’s called the Civil Rights Movement.”
Mention of Dr King also brings back many memories for Danny, but he points out that Lewis and King were rivals.
“I was with the students, but Dr King was the leader of a group of ministers, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, I think they were all ministers.
“And we were rivals for money. And so I was not a big fan of his but he was a huge figure.
“I remember I was at the airport with Jim Forman. Dr King had come out with one of his buddies and he was on the cover of Time Magazine.
“And he was holding it in front of his chest, kind of showing it off.
“I had my camera, but I couldn’t bring myself to take a picture. I had too much respect for him.”
One time that Danny was arrested, he ended up in the same jail as Dr King, but the jails were segregated so he wasn’t able to talk to him.
He writes in his book that “Martin Luther King Jr was locked up in the ‘negro’ section of the jail”.
Danny told me he was surprised when Dr King was assassinated.
“He was murdered in 1968,” he said, “and the Civil Rights Movement that I was involved in took place in 1962 to 64.
“And so in terms of revolutionary change, time is compressed, meaning changes happen so rapidly that, say in five years, something happens that might have taken 50 years normally. That’s the whole nature of the revolution.
“In 1968, I was working on a photographic record of life inside six Texas prisons.
“And my first thought when he was murdered was why did they do that? The Civil Rights Movement was over, he’s no longer a great leader.
“There’s been a lot of speculation about who killed him and why. I think people realised that someday he would become president of the United States. He had an enormous appeal and popularity.”
Many people in the UK would have been introduced to the Civil Rights Movement by the 1988 film Mississippi Burning, which was based on the murders of Civil Rights Movement activist Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman who were murdered after attempting to organise a voter registry for African Americans.
Schwerner and Goodman were Jews from New York, while Cheney was a black man from Mississippi.
“I taught a class at City University of New York,” Danny told me. “We designed a stamp called Died for Freedom. It had portraits of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner.
“And I was campaigning with John Lewis to create a real stamp as there should have been a postage stamp for this.
“They died for the right to vote. It’s still not a stamp because racism still exists in the deep south.”
Danny has written an essay on the stamp on his blog bleakbeauty.com
He also reveals in his book that he is not a fan of many of the films made about the Civil Rights Movement.
He was particularly critical of Ava DuVernay’s 2014 film Selma which was based on the infamous 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches, led by Dr King, Lewis and Hosea Williams.
“My problem is I’m a filmmaker,” Danny said. “I bring to it a higher standard. My wife Nancy and I go to the movies. And the first thing we talked about is there were too many close ups.
“With Selma, DuVerna does all kinds of nonsense with history. She begins with the children being blown up in a Baptist church, which had nothing to do with Selma. It happened years earlier.
“I was in Selma often before the notorious attack at the bridge took place.
“John Lewis worked with Jim Forman, he was an enormous figure in the movement. And he’s been somewhat forgotten about.
“He is not as famous as John or certainly not as Dr King. And he’s in the film, but Trai Byers’ portrayal of him is ridiculous.
“They make this intellectual 35-year-old into a 20-year-old Pachuco. He looks like some kind of gang member.
“He had a famous line at a meeting where he said that if civil rights people weren’t given a seat at the table, they were going to knock the f******* legs off. It’s a political statement, like making peace in Ukraine and not inviting Zelensky.
“For this one line, she has this young character looking like a hoodlum and it’s silly. And it’s insulting because the guy’s not alive but his memory is alive.”
After the excitement of the Civil Rights Movement, Danny could have been forgiven for taking things easy.
But his next project was on outlaw motorcycle gangs where he travelled with and shared the lifestyle of bikers in the American Midwest from 1963 to 1967.
His chronicle of the Chicago chapter of the Outlaws Motorcycle Club was featured in his 1968 book The Bikeriders — which has been adapted into a film, to be released on June 21, starring Austin Butler, Jodie Comer, Tom Hardy and Norman Reedus.
Danny is excited by the forthcoming release, working out the maths of how many people he thinks will see it.
Johnnie Davis, the head of the club, is played by Hardy.
“Hardy is incredible,” Danny said. “I’m a huge fan. It was just amazing to see him bring my old book to life.”
But did he ever fear for his safety due to the dangerous reputation the outlaw motorcycle clubs had.
“The biggest danger was me riding my motorcycle,” he replied. “It had nothing to do with outlaws.
“I’d been riding for five years, I was a pretty reckless rider, although I only hurt myself one time, my knee.
“When I was in it, it was really blue collar guys who loved their motorcycles. And they were what I described in my book. They were a motorcycle club.
“The movie talks about the change, because what happens is, when I leave the club, guys come back from Vietnam. And Vietnam really changed America; it changed a generation and exposed all these young people to extreme violence.
“A lot of them used drugs, and it meant a new element entered the club and it changes.
“That’s what the film is about, this change from the kind of beer drinking band of brothers to a much more problematic group of people.”
He recounts a story of one member pulling out a swastika blanket at a picnic.
“His name was Ed Foley,” Danny said. “A couple of years ago, he died and the family wrote to me and said Ed wanted me to have his things because they looked at me as kind of a family historian.
“I remember Ed really well. At one point Ed proposed bringing a Puerto Rican into the club because I think he was influenced by the Civil Rights Movement.
“And there was a big discussion about it because, apparently, there were no Latinos in the club.
“And then we had a picnic in the woods. And he brought out a real Nazi flag. It was like six feet. It was the only time I remember seeing something like that.”
The Destruction of Lower Manhattan was Lyon’s next work in 1969.
It documented the large-scale demolition taking place throughout Lower Manhattan in 1967.
In 1971, he published Conversations with the Dead, which was with the full cooperation of the Texas Department of Corrections.
Danny photographed in six prisons over a 14-month period in 1967–68.
He befriended many of the prisoners featured in the book, which included texts taken from prison records, letters from convicts, and inmate artwork.
The book focused on convicted rapist Billy McCune.
Danny’s other publications have included Pictures from the New World; I Like To Eat Right On The Dirt;Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement; Indian Nations; Like A Thief’s Dream; Memories of Myself; Deep Sea Diver; The Seventh Dog; and Burn Zone.
He is also behind the films Born to Film and Two Fathers, Dear Mark, El Otro Lado, Little Boy, Llanito, Los Niños Abandonados, Media Man, Soc. Sci. 127, Willie, Shadowman and Nothing, Five Days, Murderers and El Mojado — all available to watch via bleakbeauty.com
Danny and Nancy have been together for 47 years.
“I had been married and had two young children,” he explained. “And I meet Nancy. And she becomes my sound recorder because when you make movies with tape recorders, you need a second person to hold the recorder.
“Now she drives me around because she doesn’t like me driving, I owe her a lot. I’m 82 and still working. Nancy is in her mid-70s.”
He added: “I am an artist. And I use what I think are endlessly powerful art forms — still camera and the motion picture camera.
“I take everything I do from reality. And so the subjects that I got involved with were tremendously powerful subjects. And that’s why I chose them.
“But there was also an ideology about them, because I felt, for whatever reason, that I was part of what we call the media.
“The word ‘media’ never existed until pretty recently. No one said media in 1960. But I think when you’re involved with that kind of form, you want an audience.
“You want people to see what you’re doing. And so I think there was always a kind of ideology underlying to everything I did, obviously in the Civil Rights Movement and then the prison work and architectural work.
“But even in the motorcycle work, I was showing that blue collar people are ordinary people.
“People who were often looked down upon by intellectuals were in fact great and inspiring human beings.
“I was always after the human in the person, and that’s what drives my work.”
Danny describes himself as having “a good memory for detail, which is nice when you’re writing, but, because I’m a photographer I have contact sheets, with everything I’ve ever done.
“So if I wanted to know what I was doing to the second in 1965 in Chicago, I could pull out a book and it’s like a visual diary.”
His sons Noah and Raphael have followed in his artistic footsteps.
“Noah is a painter,” he said. “My other son Raphael makes sculptures using chemistry, it’s fairly complicated. I’m not sure I could describe what he does.”
Danny is very proud of his Instagram page @dannylyonphotos2 — although he isn’t a fan of people taking pictures of their food.
“The best thing about digital photography is you can believe you can put it in the garbage,” he said.
“And as much as I shun them, the iPhone has an amazing ability to make movies.”



Mike Cohen

Jewish Telegraph deputy editor and arts editor. Email Mcohen@jewishtelegraph.com with your Jewish arts stories