Portrait of Vernon Merritt. (Photo by Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Portrait of Vernon Merritt. (Photo by Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

“He was the epitome of a Southern gentleman,” said Bill Eppridge of Vernon Merritt (1940-2000). This apparently included having the courage to stand up to other Southerners. As just one example, when integration was ordered in Tuskegee, in his home state of Alabama, black students were bused to another town. Merritt got on one of the buses, and “when we got there, Sheriff Jim Clark came onboard. I had a couple of Nikons around my neck, and he snatched them off and whacked me with a cattle prod. I was shocked a few times and hit a couple of times and then thrown out on the street. I wound up in jail.” In Vietnam, he was shot by a sniper and paralyzed for months. Co Rentmeester was in Vietnam with him: “He was soft-spoken, but he was also a major daredevil. He was somewhat of a risk taker, which in the world of journalism and photography makes you successful.”

Adapted from The Great LIFE Photographers

Photographer Vernon Merritt at work on an Apache Indian reservation. (Photo by Vernon Merritt/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Photographer Vernon Merritt at work on an Apache Indian reservation. (Photo by Vernon Merritt/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Model walking on the street in "New York" fashion. (Photo by Vernon Merritt/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Model walking on the street in “New York” fashion. (Photo by Vernon Merritt/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

More Like This

Sidney Poitier in a scene from "Porgy and Bess," 1959. Photographer

Gjon Mili

Senator John F. Kennedy playing peek-a-boo with his daughter Caroline in her crib. (Photo by Edward Clark/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation) Photographer

Edward Clark

Street scene during business hours. (Photo by Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation) Photographer

Peter Stackpole

Technician at Washington State University measuring lumps of cow fetuses. (Photo by Oscar Fritz Goro/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation) Photographer

Fritz Goro

The kitchen in President Harry Truman's family home. (Photo by Henry Groskinsky/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation) Photographer

Henry Groskinsky

Balinese farmer herding his flock of ducks through a field. (Photo by Co Rentmeester/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation) Photographer

Co Rentmeester