New Exhibit Focuses on Civil Rights Movement Images

August 1, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown takes a look at a new exhibit exploring the Civil Rights movement through photographs, including some that have never been seen before, and finds the stories behind the powerful images.

JEFFREY BROWN: Perhaps no social movement in American history is so tied up in the power of the image as the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.

When Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ralph Abernathy took the first desegregated bus ride in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956, when young men and women picketed a North Carolina courthouse in 1961, when protesters were set on by police dogs in Birmingham in 1963, cameras were there to record the moment.

Photographers got right into the action, often at personal risk, so their work could reach the front pages of American newspapers the next day.

This mix of journalism, activism, and art is celebrated in “Road to Freedom,” put together by Atlanta’s High Museum to mark the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, some 250 photographs that both document a time and show the power of images to move people then and now.

Curator Julian Cox.

JULIAN COX, curator of photography, High Museum of Art, Atlanta: Photography captures time and has this extraordinary capacity to freeze an historical moment and to provide information, evidence, narrative suggestion that is a very powerful — becomes a very powerful thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: The London-born Cox came to Atlanta three years ago and searched high and low for photographs that would build up the museum’s existing civil rights era collection.

He found never-before-shown works, like this sequence of photos of the firebombing of a bus bearing “Freedom Riders” in Anniston, Ala., in 1961. They’d been stored in a law firm for decades as potential evidence.

And images that moved through time: a photo by Danny Lyon from the 1963 march on Washington that became a call-to-action poster and then turned up in another photo later taken in rural Mississippi.

Then there are iconic works: Rosa Parks being fingerprinted in Montgomery in 1956, taken by an unknown photographer.

TEACHER: Somebody tell me about Rosa Parks. What do you know about her?

STUDENT: She was the first black lady to sit in the front of the bus.

TEACHER: That’s right.

Photos catch iconic moments

JEFFREY BROWN: Then there are the photos of James Meredith writhing in pain after being shot in Mississippi in 1966. They won the Pulitzer Prize for Jack Thornell, then a 26 year old working for the Associated Press.

And protesters being blasted with water in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham in 1963, taken by Bob Adelman, a freelancer who worked for both magazines and civil rights groups.

JULIAN COX: It's a picture that's so much about the decisive moment in photography with these two echoing gestures of figures with their arms raised. And it has the grandeur and power of some of the great paintings of history.

I think it's one of the great photographs of the 20th century in America. It's pictures like these that really changed the nation.

DORIS DERBY, photographer/activist: I particularly like to have pictures of the children...

JEFFREY BROWN: One person moved to action was a young northerner named Doris Derby.

DORIS DERBY: The power of those photographs, with the fire hoses, the dogs jumping on young people because they were demonstrating, the police with their billy clubs, all of those influenced me to go to Mississippi, when I had just two weeks earlier declined to participate.

JEFFREY BROWN: So those photos really changed your life?

DORIS DERBY: I said, "This is something that I have to do."

JEFFREY BROWN: In Mississippi, Derby took photographs for civil rights organizations while working as an educator and community organizer. Amid the violence and injustice, she focused her lens on programs in which blacks were helping themselves.

DORIS DERBY: I was documenting not only the political side, but the economic, the educational, and the artistic side that complemented the political. And I wanted to make sure that the self-empowerment activities that the communities were involved in were documented.

We had so many leaders developing. The average person was looking for a chance for a change.

JULIAN COX: And then this is very unusual, as well.

Photos seen for the first time

JEFFREY BROWN: In the family collection of Vicki Wilson Hunt, curator Cox found another rich trove of photos and a different perspective on events.

Hunt's father, at the time a detective for the Birmingham Police Department, took numerous pictures, including some from that same day in 1963 when the water hoses were turned on young people in Kelly Ingram Park.

Hunt herself knew nothing of the photos and wasn't sure what to make of them when her father showed them to her shortly before he died.

VICKI WILSON HUNT: I knew they were historic. I knew that my father thought that they were extremely important. They were wrapped in envelopes; they were very well taken care of. They were almost private to him.

JEFFREY BROWN: As a girl, Hunt says, she, like many of her white friends, knew very little of the turmoil around her. The photos and then this exhibition opened up her world.

VICKI WILSON HUNT: I went through room after room -- we were invited to the preview with other photographers, and then we came upstairs, and looked at the exhibit, and went from room to room -- I read every single thing that's beside every single picture.

And the museum had to come and ask us, tell us that the museum was closed and would we please leave, because it was closed. But I couldn't leave, because I was just fascinated with this story that I had missed.

JEFFREY BROWN: The photographs get a different kind of homage in a companion exhibition at the High Museum called "After 1968: Contemporary Artists and the Civil Rights Legacy." Seven artists were sent copies of the photos and commissioned to come up with a new work.

Nadine Robinson created a giant sculpture made of stereo speakers, with a variety of references to the civil rights era. A shape based on the facade of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, megaphones suggesting those used by protesters, and, most of all, a mix of sounds from gospel music to protest speeches to water hoses being sprayed.

NADINE ROBINSON, "After 1968" Artist: I wanted to take these photos and give them voice, give them a sort of life, a life force, re-envisioning them in which they are not subjugated, but uplifted.

JEFFREY BROWN: That's this part of the piece, but then at other times you hear the water being sprayed. I mean, you sort of feel the pain, as well.

NADINE ROBINSON: This is sort of like a give-and-take, that you kind of remember where you're coming from, but also have the hope of moving forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: Viewers and listeners have a chance to experience the new, while, says Julian Cox, savoring the depths of history and emotion contained in the old photographs.

JULIAN COX: They're moved by the images because they have the capacity to unleash powerful personal memories and qualities of personal association in the way that not all photography can do, but this subject matter seems to be able to really connect to people in that kind of powerful, direct way.

JEFFREY BROWN: The "Road to Freedom" exhibition is in Atlanta through October 5th, before moving to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., in November.