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Photos show undeniable history of the civil rights movement

February 28, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
A new photo exhibit captures a crucial period in the civil rights movement through the work of nine photographers. Special correspondent David C. Barnett of WVIZ/PBS Ideastream reports from the Maltz Museum in Cleveland.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We often think of history as words recorded in a textbooks, but some of the most powerful stories of our past are told through images.

As David C. Barnett from WVIZ/PBS ideastream in Cleveland reports, an exhibit at the Maltz Museum of Jewish documents a crucial period in the civil rights movement of the 1960s through the work of nine photographers.

DAVID C. BARNETT: Martin Luther King Jr. led about 25,000 people into Montgomery, Alabama, in March of 1965 as part of a demonstration to promote voting rights.

Government officials in several Southern states were trying to suppress the African-American vote by making it difficult to register.

Historian Leslie Kelen says a rigged literacy test often made it impossible.

LESLIE KELEN, Center for Documentary Expression and Art: White people who also took the literacy test were almost always passed. And about 98 percent of the black people failed.

DAVID C. BARNETT: Kelen is executive director for the Utah-based Center for Documentary Expression and Art, which has organized a traveling photo exhibition which tells the story of that voting rights march and other civil rights events of the mid-1960s.

Currently on display at Cleveland’s Maltz Museum of Jewish heritage, the exhibition gives a behind-the-scenes look at everything from quiet moments to violent confrontations.

The Montgomery demonstration brings many memories back to 81-year-old Otis Moss Jr., who marched with King and for 33 years was pastor of Cleveland’s Olivet Institutional Baptist Church.

Reverend Ross recalls that a previous protest had resulted in a vicious attack by state troopers, so he had mixed emotions as the march approached the city.

OTIS MOSS JR., Former Pastor, Olivet Institutional Baptist Church: It was a great moment of anticipation, acknowledgment of the danger, but also fully aware of the necessity.

DAVID C. BARNETT: As it turned out, they walked into Alabama’s capital city without incident, thanks in part to the powerful images of earlier violence that were printed and broadcast around the world.

And it didn’t hurt that the federal government had sent armed troops to accompany the demonstrators. The films and photographs focused global attention on the marchers and their safety.

OTIS MOSS JR.: I think within the civil rights community was a sense that now all of America and the world can see what we have been experiencing for decades. Here is the undeniable recording of human brutality that many people believed never happened. The picture becomes a message.

DAVID C. BARNETT: A year earlier, in June of 1964, a Mississippi voter registration drive known as Freedom Summer attracted over 1,000 volunteers from outside the state, including a prominent Jewish clergyman from Cleveland.

ELLEN RUDOLPH, Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage: Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld went down the participate in Freedom summer. He was a rabbi at Fairmount Temple. And he wanted to do what he could to help. And he was beaten.

He happened to actually be with a photographer that day. And after he was beaten up and the photographer was there, he told them to take a picture and to capture that moment.

DAVID C. BARNETT: David Kordalski has spent over to 30 years thinking about the power of images and how best to use them in print.

DAVID KORDALSKI, Creative Director, Crain’s Cleveland Business: I think a photographer’s role is to take people where they can’t go. But in this particular case, there is a large swathe of America that just didn’t know, never really been covered before in such a way.

And to get there, and have a front-row seat to history bought there in the power of a still frame is just an absolute remarkable feat.

DAVID C. BARNETT: These pictures of protests and sometimes violent confrontations between citizens and police are a part of America’s historical record, but some of the events of 50 years ago, documented by photography, certainly have a familiar ring.

ELLEN RUDOLPH: We can’t look at these images without thinking about what is happening today.

DAVID C. BARNETT: Like the image captured by a security camera showing the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice on Cleveland’s West Side.

This scene helped rekindle a national discussion about race and justice in the same way that some of these photos on display at the Maltz Museum did 50 years ago.

Otis Moss is taken with something else he sees in these photographs. It’s a different sort of historical lesson that would be hard to explain in the text of a history book.

OTIS MOSS JR.: She is giving literacy instruction, preparing this individual to write his name in order that he will be able to register and vote.

It inspires me beyond description to see this scene and look at her hand over his hand. There is a volume of history tied into this one photograph.

DAVID C. BARNETT: Images have the power to tell us stories about ourselves and others in a way that words can’t always capture.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m David C. Barnett in Cleveland.

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