Images of racism and resistance

June 26, 2008

Patrick Dyer reviews a stunning exhibit of more than 130 photos and artifacts from the civil right movement.

"THE ROAD to Freedom" photography exhibit opened earlier this month, and it's hard to exaggerate its emotional power. Comprised of 130 images from the civil rights movement taken by activists, onlookers and professionals, most of the photos have never before been publicly displayed.

Atlanta's High Museum of Art holds one of the most extensive collections of civil rights-era photographs, and it is promoting this as the most significant museum display of civil rights photography in over two decades.

Browsing the exhibit felt like walking back in time, and I experienced the complete emotional spectrum during my visit. Tears when I looked at the images of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock 9, being taunted by a mob of racists as she walked to the all-white Central High School. Eckford was walking alone because she didn't get the message that the planned integration was postponed a day.

Exhilaration from a defiant image of Stokely Carmichael facing down a row of National Guard bayonets in Cambridge, Md. Sadness as I looked at pictures of Resurrection City, a shantytown constructed near the Washington Monument during the 1968 Poor People's Campaign. An eerie feeling evoked by the photo of Dr. King's Lorraine Motel room shortly after his assassination, showing a wrinkled shirt, Styrofoam coffee cup and Soul Force magazine.

One shot shows the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) protesting a Klan picket of a recently desegregated Atlanta hotel. One SNCC member holds a sign in between marching Klansmen that says, "Atlanta's image is a fraud." Another photo shows Alabama state troopers on the infamous Selma bridge, giving a "two-minute warning" moments before unleashing their savage "Bloody Sunday" attack on the peaceful marchers.

Many of the pictures are sure to outrage, such as the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., racists flaunting "Segregation Forever" signs. Some are gut-wrenching, such as a mother fainting at the funeral of her daughter, one of the four children killed when a bomb exploded at Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church, with 400 worshippers inside. It was Birmingham's third bombing in two weeks since school integration began.

But countering the appalling story of racism are the many awe-inspiring shots of courage and determination from the Black freedom struggle's mass demonstrations, such as the one featuring an unidentified man, sopping wet, holding high a "We're human too" sign after being fire-hosed in Birmingham's Kelly Ingram Park.

Andrew Young, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis in Selma, Ala., in 1965
Andrew Young, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis in Selma, Ala., in 1965 (High Museum of Art)

Then there are the photos of the 1965 mass sit-in of 6,000 people at the Los Angeles Federal Building. This event, organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), demanded an "end to the racist violence and intimidation in the South" and serves as an important example of solidarity for activists today.

ONE STUNNING aspect of the exhibit is the vicious hatred of the racists who fought to conserve the status quo. One 1964 photo captured James Brock, hotel manager at the St. Augustine, Fla., Monson Motor Lodge, pouring toxic chemicals into the pool while Black activists conducted a peaceful "swim-in." Not shown in the picture, but reported in the caption, was that after the chemicals were poured into the pool, off-duty cops then jumped in and arrested the Black swimmers. Brock then drained the pool, refilled it and raised the Confederate flag.

A shocking series of photos records the shooting of James Meredith, the first Black student to attend the University of Mississippi. He was ambushed while marching for voter registration along Highway 61. Two pictures show a terrified Meredith stumbling off the road immediately after being hit. Another close-up shows blood gushing from his head as he lay still on the roadside.

Another sequence exposes the carnage and terror of Mother's Day 1961, when the Freedom Rider's Greyhound bus was firebombed. As the bus arrived in Anniston, Ala., that fateful day, the Freedom Riders were attacked by an armed mob (although then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy told a Jet reporter beforehand that he wished he could be there, he provided absolutely no protection to those who actually were).

As the bus fled town, it was eventually overtaken by a vigilante mob of 50 vehicles and over 200 thugs. With the 14 riders trapped inside, the bus was attacked, firebombed and incinerated. Unbelievably, none of the Freedom Riders were killed.

One exhibit photo reveals the gruesome inside of the charred bus after the fire was quelled. Another shows two Alabama cops, billy clubs in hand, standing by idly watching as the bus burns. These photos were actually used as evidence against six of the terrorists indicted for this violence. Not surprisingly, the criminal case resulted in a hung jury. The six defendants were later given probation on lesser charges, never serving jail time.

"Road to Freedom" also features numerous historical documents, such as John Lewis' arrest record, KKK flyers promoting a cross burning rally and SNCC recruitment posters. Other "Road to Freedom" photos document well some of the many obstacles along the road to equality, such as one of Bull Connor's electric cattle prods, German shepherd police attack dogs, fire hoses, tear gas, billy clubs, pistols, rifles, bayonets and machine guns.

A shortcoming of "Road to Freedom" is the absence of the more militant Black Power sections of the movement. By no means is this a "nonviolent" photo exhibit. A vast proportion of the photos contain graphic violence--the violence of the police and the racists. The exhibit's dominant theme is King's early ethos of "loving your enemy."

A more comprehensive exhibit could include the Deacons for Defense, whose armed militia confronted the Klan throughout Louisiana; and Robert Williams who armed the Monroe, N.C., NAACP chapter to fight the Klan and police; and of course, the Black Panther Party. But this is probably asking too much from an exhibit supported by American Express and Turner Broadcasting.

"Road to Freedom" uses photography to powerfully portray a part of the struggle that rocked the very foundation of U.S. society. Anyone in Atlanta between now and October, or near the Smithsonian after November, should visit Road to Freedom. It's a capsule of time certain to move you.

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