Civil Rights and a Heated South
Growing up in Mississippi, a complex and often heated bedrock for political discussion, a series of books, travels, and conversations made me aware of the South’s complex racial problems, even as young child. And it has been through my constant work of mining Civil Rights photographs that I have come to some understanding of racial inequality and injustice. I hope I have been part of change.
First, I grew up on Clark Street, and a few houses down the way lived Walter and Mary Thompson with their two boys, Wright and William. The Thompsons fostered and encouraged the two key, intersecting parts of my life that would ultimately become the building blocks of my vocation: southern literature and southern politics. Walter was a political activist in the Mississippi Delta—mainly a red state of the Reagan era—and the first Democrat I ever knew. Despite various threatening acts by white supremacist groups that went as far as burning crosses in his yard, Walter progressively and relentlessly fought for civil rights among the races and for women. A key political fundraiser for Clinton, Walter believed in a united, colorblind America, one of unity and diversity. Mary was my high school English teacher and encouraged voracious reading, journaling, and accessing material that “made you think.” It was Mary who first introduced me to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, not just in text but also with sound via a spinning 45 record. Listening to the speech in an all-white classroom at Lee Academy (yes, named for the Confederate Robert E. Lee) of the upper class, I found it sensory, compelling and life-changing.
Second, the construct of my immediate family must be noted, too. My father owned a furniture company whose customer base, for the most part, was made up of poor blacks who had to finance everything from a stove to a sofa. My father and I spent every Sunday together, driving to Memphis along Highway 61 for gymnastics and lunch. I made a catty remark late one Saturday afternoon that he should pick up a bed that the buyer could not pay off. During our trip to Memphis, he detoured down an unmarked road and knocked on the door of a tenant house. Stray dogs lurked in the clean yard, with two large oak trees accented by a tire swing. The lady, Josephine, was tidy and dressed in her best church clothes—a lilac cotton dress with shiny pearl buttons. Her home was modest but well kept, and I couldn’t help but notice the hogshead that she had been slicing next to a tiny yellow coffee pot, just big enough to serve a cup or two. I also noticed the stacked beds through a cracked door and her children on the floor nearby. My father and Josephine visited for a few minutes before he hugged her, and then we continued our travels. He said little on the rest of the ride, except, “There will always be those with more. There will always be those with less.”
It was a turning point for me and has been a visual reference for many years. I felt spoiled with lack of understanding. I felt out of touch with the hard facts of the socioeconomics of the Mississippi Delta and how race is a large part of it. It was the first time I had seen poverty so blatantly. But I felt proud of my father and saw his kindness in a powerful way. He seemed saintly that day.
Third, While I was studying at Ole Miss, I purchased a book on Ernest Wither’s Negro baseball players. That launched a curiosity that translated into many visits to his studio on Beale Street, unbeknownst to my mother. His studio was located in the heart of downtown Memphis, a less than safe place for whites, particularly women walking alone. But I spent many hours with him, sifting through photographs into the wee hours. I made key purchases that would remain a major part of my archive. Ernest Withers was one of the only African American photographers to document the civil rights era, mainly in Memphis. His most famous work, “I Am a Man,” captures sanitation workers protesting for better pay and equal rights. The march instigated a lot of trouble and lured Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis, where he was shot a few days later at the Lorraine Motel downtown.
To have studied and explored the archives of renowned civil rights photojournalists has been a lifetime’s privilege. I have been allowed the honor of sifting through thousands of contact sheets, work prints, mounted photographs, notes, and magazines still marked by fingerprints and inscriptions by the artists' hands. Although I have never met many of the photographers, I have come to know the greatness of the men and women revealed both by what he/she recorded and by what was left unsaid.
Over the course of my career, there has been a plethora of Civil Rights images to mine, as the 1960s marked the heyday of the great photography magazines, providing working photographers with the opportunity to capture the spirit of the time in elaborate, multi-page spreads with big images. Civil rights leaders embraced the medium both as a vehicle to inform and educate and as a means to document their momentous journey. Magazines were hungry to print images from the front lines. Despite the dangers for journalists, photographers were drawn to the drama of the civil rights story and bore valuable witness to the demonstrations, arrests, riots, and burnings.
The photographs in this particular publication present images by selected photographers--James Karales, Bruce Roberts, Bob Adelman--and exemplify assignments that photographers undertook in the years 1960 to 1965: Nonviolent Passive Resistance Training in Atlanta in 1960; the SCLC Convention in Birmingham in 1962; KKK Burnings in rural North Carolina; an intimate series of the King family at home in Atlanta in 1962; and Dr. King and Reverend Ralph Abernathy’s campaign in Birmingham in 1962, which includes pictures made in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, with the Reverend C.T. Vivian, Rosa Parks, and other leaders in attendance. The Civil Rights story apexes with a selection of images documenting the Selma to Montgomery March for Voting Rights in 1965, which provided the culminating and iconic images of a movement that had become so personal for so many photographers, both professional and amateur.
In early 2000, I found and delved into the luring and meticulously preserved archive of Civil Rights photographs by James Karales. Archived here in Charleston, I first immersed myself in these treasures in preparation for the exhibition “1968: Controversy and Hope/Iconic Images by James Karales,” organized for the Rebekah Jacob Gallery in the spring of 2009. Woven throughout his oeuvre of photo essays is his trademark compassion for social injustice and eye for political upheaval during the turbulent years of the civil rights movement. The civil rights story offered rich material to mine for a various projects because the modest Karales had only occasionally printed his work and rarely presented it in exhibitions or publications beyond its initial assignment.
With several cameras slung around his neck and a cigarette in hand, Karales focused his intense gaze on one of the most challenging issues in our nation’s history. He balanced the job’s requirements with his own aesthetic to find a different story, one of tenderness and triumph. Within the crowds, his discerning eye discovered heroic portraits of individuals, such as a teenage boy who proudly challenges the viewer under the weight of a massive, hand-stitched flag or a youth with “Vote” emblazoned across his forehead.
Arguably the most critical work of this time comes from Karales’s close access to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other key civil rights leaders. Being one of very few photographers to enter King’s home, Karales’s portraits of Dr. King went beyond the expected to portray quiet, telling moments. In one image, Karales reveals the fatherly angst of Dr. King as he painfully breaks the news to his young daughter that she is forbidden to visit an amusement park because of her race (plate 24). The caption in the February 12, 1963 issue of Look reads: “I told my child about the color bar.”
Despite the passage of time, or perhaps heightened by it, we are able to see the integrity and clarity of by these photographers' visions, against the backdrop of a crucial juncture in our shared history. Their work continues to compel us to remember both what divides us and what unites us. It is my hope that these images--and RJG's curatorial projects--reveal previously untold moments in this pivotal era of American history.