Time will Tell, Part Two

Atlanta is an historic town. Sherman burned it  before he began his march to the sea. Gardner photographed the ruins, still smoking. In New York the General’s  gilded statue sits astride his gilded horse on 58th street at Central Park. Today, as you enter the city at the Atlanta airport, there  are large photographs on display of Doctor King,  whose church was in the city. Now his tomb is there, a National Park.  Even  at the Airport, Pascal’s (two sides, and meat; baked chicken,  candied yams, collards and corn bread, $7.99) there  is a display of B&W prints. We see Julian Bond sitting at the original Pascal’s, his hair large enough for birds to nest in, Julian, working for SNCC, already a young hero of the Movement.
I also worked  for SNCC  reaching the city for the first time in the summer of 1962  before taking a bus further south to Albany, where, after a few days of making pictures, I was put in jail. Now those pictures, made 45 years ago, and others I made in the city of Atlanta as SNCC kids and marchers brought what would be called the  Southern Civil Rights Movement  into the heart of downtown, are on display along with a few hundred others  as part of Road to Freedom, 1956-1968. The High Museum sits in the center of the new Atlanta.   The“downtown”  I knew and that was the target of many SNCC demonstrations is gone  as new construction  and  the cutting of trees  has done a much more thorough work of destruction than Sherman ever could have.
In June of 1963 I moved to Atlanta and shared an apartment with John Lewis  and a white  radical from Alabama,  named Sam Shirah.  Sam was murdered in the mid 1970’s.   While sitting next to now Congressman Lewis at the reception for Road to Freedom at the High, the Director announced that the High now probably owned the largest archive of civil rights photographs anywhere,  and I turned to John and  whispered  “except  for mine”.   When a former SNCC worker was presented as one of the photographers, John said,“I didn’t know she  took pictures.”  The Southern Civil Rights Movement,    was not discovered by the national media until  it had been in existence for two years. This was  precisely the time that Seymour Hersch said it would take the media to discover “any revolution” in America.   By a combination of a spirit of adventure and luck (my motorcycle broke down in Chicago leaving me profoundly bored), I managed to reach  the Movement, cameras in hand, one year ahead of most everyone else. By June of 1963 I was hired as the SNCC’s first and only staff photographer and at that point I was sent to every demonstration they knew of in advance to make pictures, mostly of people being arrested.  Once the media  and a thousand whites arrived  for the  Freedom the Summer of 1964, I left and didn’t look  back for another generation.  By then it was  history.
Julian  Cox, curator of Road to Freedom, has chosen the dates 1956—1968 for his show, Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement.  I would argue that the Southern Civil Rights Movement, which was an authentic  and mostly successful grassroots movement, that  was called the Movement  (the capitilized word first used when I named the collection of pictures that SNCC would publish in 1964) in the book of that name, ended much earlier. Cox’s show ends with the murder of Doctor King  and includes pictures of the martyred  American hero in his coffin, a picture I found shocking.  A Navajo on  the board of trustees would never have  allowed this picture to be displayed. I first saw a dead person when at age twenty-one I   stood in line to view the open  casket of one of the young girls blown up in   the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. I  was supposed to make a picture of her  but when I reached  the open coffin, I could not bare to look. I put the Nikon Reflex over my eye, pushed the shutter and left.
Over the twelve year period,   (the greatest number of demonstrations and arrests were all in the spring and summer of 1963, over 15,000), all kinds of photographers touched base with the Movement.  Life and  Look Magazine assignments, free lancers, amateurs (Julian Bond    often had a camera around his neck ), “art” photographers, were occasionally all at the same place at the same time.  There were hundreds of photographers, and thousands with cameras at the March on Washington in August.  But there were a few, two weeks later when the KKK blew up the girls in Birmingham, and there were none when they beat the children bloody at Danville, Virginia the night before  I reached  the hospital the previous June. So, we ask in Time will Tell, Part Two, which  of all these photographs survived? What exactly did the High Art Museum decide was worthy to show, some to publish and all to preserve “for all time” in their humidity  controlled vaults  for the future, of  the photographs made of perhaps the one period of twentieth century America that almost everyone feels good about, the non-violent Southern Civil Rights Movement?
The show, which is more extensive  and quite different than the book,  is a knock out. In addition to the expected B&W silver prints, mostly 11 by 14 inches and smaller, that cover the walls, there are also posters  and glass cases with police arrest documents, civil rights  reports, flyers from SNCC and CORE, and often the  original vintage prints that were used for these.  From one photograph made by me at the March on Washington of a young man,    we see the silver print of the photograph, the “NOW” poster SNCC  made using the picture, and finally a picture by Bob Fletcher showing the torn poster hung on the porch of a freedom house in Mississippi.
The most compelling prints were made by reporters that developed their  film and prints in motel rooms and then typed a text on the spot, taped it across the bottom of the 8 by 10 print, and using a drum scanner,   telexed this work over the phone lines to their newspapers where silver prints were made. Cox correctly purchased many of these for the collection, and the combination of picture,  say, of John Lewis, with a text right on top of the picture  describing how his teeth were knocked out  and why there is blood all over his shirt, is as affective as we can get using photographs.  If this was put into a rocket ship and sent into space, the future life forms could probably figure out the history of the movement  from  this one single work.
Another part of the exhibit includes a wall covered with the 400 mug shots made of the second wave of Freedom Riders as they were incarcerated  in Jackson, Mississippi.  I believe many of those arrested were taken to Parchmen Penitentiary, then and now a notorious place to be. These mug shots very powerfully preserve as sense of a reality now gone  and truly deserve to be shown and preserved.

The day the media finally discovers the Movement that had been going on for two years, is May 3, 1963  when the Birmingham police turn  water hoses on the youthful demonstrators in the park across from the 16th Street Baptist Church ,which will be bombed three months later.  Three well known professionals are there: the free lance magazine photographer Bob Adelman (who had connections to CORE),  Charles Moore, who had a telephoto lens, and Magnum’s Bruce Davidson, who  does not. They are in the middle of the most photo genetic moment of the Movement;  they couldn’t have a better place to make images that would appeal to magazines and bring  Americans into a massive support group for the Movement. This is exactly what happened when the world saw Adelman’s and   Moore’s pictures, of the sheets of water “so forceful it could  peel the bark off a tree”, hitting young people. Bill Hudson got a close up shot of a cop pulling a young man into the open mouth of a lunging German Shepard who is about to bite him in the stomach. Davidson, using a short lens, makes the most realistic and least effective pictures. They have little propaganda value as the some of the kids seem to be enjoying themselves, which I am sure they were.

The Movement pictures which were  most effective were a type of propaganda. These “kids” where in a holy war to bring down the evil of segregation.  Adelman’s picture of a cluster of demonstrators, two with arms aloft as they are hit by the water, is straight  of out an image from the French Revolution by David and is one of a number of masterpieces of American photography in the  show. Inexplicably this great art museum has allowed the picture to be cut in half when they reproduced it to  make a very handsome cover for the show’s catalogue.

After the Selma March, a well covered media event  I skipped, the Movement  and the pictures wind down.  The best pictures here are of a completely beat Fannie Lou Hammer at her home by Steve Shapiro, a feisty little guy from Chicago who covered  the Movement.  John Lewis being beaten to the ground yet again at the first Selma march , which was stopped with police violence, a  shot of police hysteria during the Watts Riot (not actually part of any civil rights movement)  and a great series by Morton Broffman (Morton who?) made during marches in Montgomery. Broffman, whom I never heard of, is one of the  many real discoveries and revelations made by Julian  Cox. He has also produced a fascinating and the first really serious essay on this subject in the book Road to Freedom.  Cox has put a few years of hard work into assembling this material, all of which has withstood  The Test of Time.

3 Responses to “Time will Tell, Part Two”
  1. Dawoud Bey says:

    This is a great blog from an important photographer! Looking foerward to reading more. Sending greetings to Danny Lyon from here in Hyde Park, Chicago…Obama country!

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  1. […] “Road to Freedom” has launched “Dektol’s Weblog“. Mr. Lyon has a great post up about the making of those photographs, and how he ended-up in the South long before the Civil […]

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