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October 24, 2020

Exhibition Celebrates Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement

A nationally traveling exhibition, “This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement” comes to the Bullock Museum

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Emerging from student-led sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in 1960, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, was the principal organization through which black and white students channeled their activism during the civil rights movements.

The SNCC organized the Freedom Rides of 1961, aimed at desegregating buses. They  launched voter registration drives and were instrumental in the 1963 March on Washington at which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Opening in Austin this week, a nationally traveling exhibition features more 150 black-and-white photographs taken by photo journalists and photographers who were themselves also participants and activists involved with SNCC.

Organized by Center for Documentary Expression and Art and the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage “This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement” presents the images of nine activist photographers who documented not only highly visible events but day-to-day organizing across the South in the 1960s.

“This Light of Ours” is on view Feb. 15 through May 20 at the Bullock Museum. And for the Austin iteration of the show, a dozen additional images representing activism and protest in Austin’s history are included. The images come from the Austin History Center’s 2018 exhibition “Taking It to the Streets: A Visual History of Protest and Demonstration in Austin.”



“This Light of Ours” features photographers Bob Adelman, George Ballis, Bob Fitch, Bob Fletcher, Matt Herron, David Prince, Herbert Randall, Maria Varela and Tamio Wakayama.

 

After the Ku Klux Klan burned this cross in front of a Mississippi Delta Freedom House, a civil rights worker transformed it with a painted message. Indianola, Mississippi. © 1964 Tamio Wakayama, Courtesy CDEA.
After the Ku Klux Klan burned this cross in front of a Mississippi Delta Freedom House, a civil rights worker transformed it with a painted message. Indianola, Mississippi. © 1964 Tamio Wakayama, Courtesy CDEA.

A Japanese Canadian who spent his childhood in a World War II internment camp, photographer Tamio Wakayama (1941-2018) skipped his final year of college and in 1963 joined the Civil Rights movement. He became a Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee staffer in the Atlanta office, designing posters and fliers and managing the darkroom. In the summer of 1964, he worked as a field photographer in Mississippi.

 

Marching children frame a state police sharpshooter. Near Jackson, Mississippi. © 1966 Maria Varela, Courtesy CDEA.
Marching children frame a state police sharpshooter. Near Jackson, Mississippi. © 1966 Maria Varela, Courtesy CDEA.

A Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee staff member from 1963 to 1967, Maria Varela (b. 1941) specialized in photographs illustrating the organization of economic cooperatives and voter registration campaigns. She later collaborated with Mexican American and Native American artisans and livestock growers to preserve pastoral cultures through sustainable development. She teaches about SNCC’s organizing methods and legacies at Colorado College, where she is a visiting professor.

 

A picketer is arrested behind Loveman's Department Store. Civil rights leaders believed that if they could break segregation in Birmingham, it would collapse throughout the South. Birmingham, Alabama. © 1963 Bob Adelman, Courtesy CDEA.
A picketer is arrested behind Loveman’s Department Store. Civil rights leaders believed that if they could break segregation in Birmingham, it would collapse throughout the South. Birmingham, Alabama. © 1963 Bob Adelman, Courtesy CDEA.

Working with the Congress of Racial Equality, Bob Adelman (1930-2016) photographed efforts to desegregate restaurants and bus terminals on Route 40 between Washington and New York. He went to Birmingham in 1963 with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where the images he captured garnered national and international recognition. He authored twelve books, including Mine Eyes Have Seen, a retrospective on the movement published in Life magazine’s 2007 “Great Photographer’s Series.”

 

 In 1965, a small, defiant group of sharecroppers began demanding a fair wage and went on strike, giving birth to the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union. Mississippi Delta. © 1965 Bob Fletcher, Courtesy CDEA.
In 1965, a small, defiant group of sharecroppers began demanding a fair wage and went on strike, giving birth to the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union. Mississippi Delta. © 1965 Bob Fletcher, Courtesy CDEA.

Bob Fletcher (1938 – ) After working for the Harlem Education Project in New York, Fletcher photographed for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in Alabama and Mississippi from 1964-1968. Becoming interested in documenting African life and culture, he worked on a documentary about Mozambique’s war of liberation, among other films shot on the continent. He later graduated from New York University’s law school and became an attorney.

On-the-spot meetings were common. (Left to right) Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Bernard Lee, Rev. Martin Luther King, and Hosea Williams confer during a rally in Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Alabama. © 1965 Bob Fitch, Courtesy CDEA.
On-the-spot meetings were common. (Left to right) Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Bernard Lee, Rev. Martin Luther King, and Hosea Williams confer during a rally in Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Alabama. © 1965 Bob Fitch, Courtesy CDEA.

Bob Fitch (1939 – 2016) An ordained minister, Fitch was 24 when he joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as a staff photographer in 1965. After nearly two years in the South, he spent the next two decades documenting social justice activities in California, including the work of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker houses of hospitality, and the efforts of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union.

 

Though too young to vote, Bobby Simmons proclaims his convictions on his forehead. After he walked all the way to Montgomery, Bobby said, "You be rejoicing once you accomplish your goal and get there." Selma—Montgomery, Alabama. © 1965 Matt Herron, Courtesy CDEA.
Though too young to vote, Bobby Simmons proclaims his convictions on his forehead. After he walked all the way to Montgomery, Bobby said, “You be rejoicing once you accomplish your goal and get there.” Selma—Montgomery, Alabama. © 1965 Matt Herron, Courtesy CDEA.

Matt Herron (1931 – ) One of the few photojournalists to bring his family with him, Herron covered the Civil Rights struggle for Life, Look and Time while also providing images for SNCC. During the 1964 Freedom Summer he organized the Southern Documentary Project, and his 1965 image of a Mississippi policeman wrestling an American flag from a black child won the World Press Photo Contest. His memoir, Mississippi Eyes: The Story and Photography of the Southern Documentary Project, was published in 2014.


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