Civil Rights, Road to Freedom, The Race Beat, Barack Obama & Moving It Forward
In response to the 40th anniversary of MLK’s assassination, there’s been a lot of great programming in Atlanta this spring/summer that revisits the Civil Rights movement. Which is fortunate for me, because the more I learn, the more I’m interested in this region’s history, and it’s all proving to be a pretty incredible experience.
The High Museum have led the way with an exhibit called “Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956-1968“, which takes a wide look at image-making during the movement, by press photographers, photojournalists, and people inside the movement itself. It’s stunning, not just in the visual presentation (there are many incredible photographs to look at) but in the sense that the exhibition has the capacity to S T U N you.
And that’s rare. When was the last time you were stilled and dumbstruck in a museum? There were a few moments during the media walk-thru of “Road to Freedom” where I thought I might not make it through. Where I needed to take a breather, stand in the middle of the room, and collect myself.
The images in the show are a perfect storm of content, execution, message, and style. Some are artful, some are pure fact, some edge into carefully constructed propaganda. But in their aggregation (curated with impressive insight and dedication by Head Curator, Julian Cox) the photographs pack a wallop that sustains, not just in the eye, but in the head and the heart.
Many from my generation (born in the early 70s) seem oblivious & carefree about our nation’s past, preoccupied as we are with the present, the future, and making our way through both. The genius of the show (which will head to Washington D.C. next year) is that it forces you to stop, look, listen, and possibly even reevaluate where you are, where you’ve been, and where the heck you (and our troubled nation) are heading.
And then there’s this picture, from “The Race Beat“, taken by Matt Heron, of Bob Adelman, Steve Shapiro and Charles Moore, on the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965. There’s a lot to like about the picture, which isn’t included in the exhibition, but shows three photographers who are big contributors to the show.
A lot of writing about the show, and the movement in general, talks about how tailor-made the struggle for Civil Rights was for still photography, and how still photography helped the nation come to terms with the reality of segregation in the South. (In large part due to Moore’s pictures of Bull Connor’s dogs and waterhoses in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, which were published in an 11-page spread in LIFE Magazine.) According to “The Race Beat“, the motorcyclist on the march above was hired by Moore as a courier to ferry film back and forth.
Another of the main photographers in the exhibition, Danny Lyon, has launched a blog called Dektol, and gives his own personal insight into the show. (And yes, DL, it is “good to be alive in Obama time.”) The AJC has a fine review here, too. And last week, I had the pleasure of hearing Hank Klibanoff speak about his Pulitzer Prize winning book “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation“.
Klibanoff came to Atlanta to become Managing Editor of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, a paper with a spotty record on Civil Rights, at least on the issues surrounding Forsyth County in the 1980s, when both papers, the Atlanta Journal & the Atlanta Constitution, treated the situation with kid gloves or worse, according to Elliot Jaspin’s “Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America“.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the AJC published a “special section” celebrating Barack Obama’s nomination on June 8th. Their decision to include Obama’s middle name on the front page of the paper feels questionable at best, especially considering the AJC is the state’s biggest paper, and Georgia is currently tilting by 10 points to Mr. McCain.
All said, Klibanoff’s presentation during a panel discussion at the High was impressive and inspirational, and I’m currently knee-deep in “The Race Beat“. Klibanoff seemed to know every person on both sides of the issue (movement/segrationists & press/newsmakers) and told incredible stories about how the Civil Rights Movement becaume a national media story, which accelerated public awareness that helped push the Voting Rights act and other reforms forward.
A day or two after seeing “Road to Freedom”, I met John Lewis in the middle of the street. I’m always surprised by people who decry celebrity culture and the lack of role models for kids in this country, when there are people like John Lewis around. Here’s Lewis on the right, before being knocked unconscious in front of Haisten’s Mattress & Awning Company, at the foot of the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, on Bloody Sunday, in an image not included in the exhibition.
There’s a lot more to say about all this. One thing I’m sure of is it feels good to be in a place that in more than a conciliatory way, is committed to discussing its history with race — a place that in a small but significant way is turning its ear toward Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union“, which urged the country to take a deeper look at these issues.
That said, in the exhibition, I was walking toward the picture below (taken an unknown New York Times photographer) and a woman was looking at it and shaking her head. She stepped back and said to me, “look at this — it’s still true.”
To close, I feel lucky that in the past year and a half, my path has led me on a “Race Beat” of my own, through Jasper, TX, to Jena, and Jim Crow Road. I may not have set-out to make pictures about race, but feel lucky to have had the chance.
To that end, let’s push this forward, America. It’s been far too long.
(Top photo credit, Bob Adleman. Picture of kneeling woman, Leonard Freed. Picture of Barack Obama pushing it forward, Derek Powazek. The first two can be found in the catalog for Road to Freedom, which includes essays by John Lewis and Charles Johnson.)
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