Blindness and Insight: The Civil Rights Movement in Photographs and Text

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

I was already an adult at the advent of the Civil Rights Movement. Thus a certain sense of mid-twentieth-century history guides my analysis of how this combined book and exhibition project interprets the social issues of that era. The exhibition was organized by Steven Kasher, photographer, writer and gallery owner, and accompanied by a book, The Civil Rights Movement.' A Photographic History, 1954-1968, also authored by Kasher.

Although the exhibition, "Appeal to this Age: Photography of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968" has been traveling nationally for the past four years, this reviewer only saw the exhibition at the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. Seventy-four black and white photographs of the "second American revolution"(1) encased in simple black frames, were mounted on freestanding wall panels. Quotations in large letters were conspicuously printed at the top of each panel. Five of the quotations were attributed to movement participants. Two were statements made by President Lyndon B. Johnson and Alabama Governor George C. Wallace. The prints were exhibited chronologically, and numbered sequentially. Photography, quotation and picture caption were arranged as if to tell a simple narrative. Accentuation in the form of enlarged quotations and five photo murals were strategically dispersed throughout the show. The largest mural, 9x14 feet, served as outer wall to a mini-theater, where the documentary Freedom on My Mind (1994)(2) showed almost continuously on one of three video monitors. The exhibition space included an Internet-linked computer, books about African Americans as photographers and as subjects, and craft activities designed for children.

Most of the photographs that comprised the exhibition and book stand as authentic documents of the Civil Rights Movement. Originally published in newspapers and as magazine photo-essays, they are evidence of the viciousness with which racists tried to contain the descendants of kidnapped people in a place that they - racists - had designated for them. Both the exhibition and the book presented familiar and new images to this viewer. The familiar included photographs published almost weekly in 1960s-era periodicals such as Life. Some selections transcended the original news stories they were part of. As Kasher put it, "The great photographs of the civil rights movement were crafted with urgent passion - for their own time and for the future."(3) The primary focus of this article is the exhibition panels: the problematic grouping of photographs and text.

PANEL ONE: Thar he.

Panel One contained four photographs, collected under the quotation, "Thar he." The first photograph, Linda Brown and Her Sister Walking to School, Topeka, Kansas, March 1953, by Carl Iwasaki, presents two children, lunch bags in hand, walking between a line of railroad freight cars and parallel sets of rails stretching to infinity. Linda Brown became a plaintiff in a class action lawsuit brought by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Plaintiffs from five geographical regions were named in suits that sought relief for African American children relegated by law to inferior facilities, services and other indignities not imposed upon white children.

Ultimately, the United States Supreme Court reviewed the cases, consolidated under the title Brown v Board of Education, Topeka. In 1954, the Court issued a landmark decision that struck down statutes underpinning segregation in public schools. In its ruling, the justices overturned the infamous Plessy v Ferguson decision rendered by the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court.

It is not surprising that the topic of public school desegregation would open the exhibition. However, in the show there is no thematic connection between Linda Brown and the other three photographs, detailed later, or to the panel quotation, "Thar he." The words are attributed to Moses Wright, a Mississippi farmer who had no direct connection to the lawsuits or to Brown. …