About The Cover

July – August 2008 About The Cover

BY Lyle Rexer, July 1, 2008

What must they look like, these photographs, to people who weren’t there or weren’t even born yet? They tend to make even those who were there doubt their own memory—no riding in the front of the bus if you were black? Can that have been true? But then you look again at Ernest Withers’s picture of the first desegregated bus ride in Montgomery, Alabama, 1956, part of the montage on the cover, and you notice that almost everyone is looking out the window, either trying to pretend it’s not happening or fearful that something worse is about to. You remember what it was like for your family to be nearly run off the road outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1963 for having a northern license plate, or the rural Mississippi gas station where no one would pump your gas, and the name over the door, Robert Shelton, a man whose picture would turn up in Life magazine with the title Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. What strikes at least one viewer about the High Museum of Art’s exhibitionRoad to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956–68 (June 7–October 5) is the relentless menace, the atmosphere of violence that permeated the time and place. The Atlanta museum’s exhibition coincides with the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the violence is obvious in many of the photos, but it is given a kind of coda in Dennis Brack’s 1968 photo of the garbagemen’s march in Memphis, with Mrs. King dressed in widow’s black. It casts a shadow even over the hopeful photos, like Bob Adelman’s 1962 picture of buttons for CORE’s voter registration drive. It was not High Museum curator Julian Cox’s intention to open old wounds. Rather, he wanted to show that the civil rights struggle in America was documented by a host of photographers both black and white, and that national conscience was awakened not just through the work of the well-known white journalists and freelancers like Danny Lyon and Bruce Davidson, but first by black journalists such as Withers, who worked for the black Memphis Tri-State Defender. Still, in spite of that professional segregation, says Cox, “They all were passionate about the story they were covering. It was a burgeoning media culture, and photos got people to act.” They needed that passion because they were targets no less than the people leading the marches. And as often as these photographers catalogue hatred, they also document an undemonstrative courage, the courage of people who know they are right, and, perhaps, that the time has come. Adds Cox, “For people distant from these events, I expect the issues raised by the images to remain relevant. For others of a certain generation, they will release powerful personal histories, a dialogue between past and present.” As they did for one viewer, who as a young boy rode through the streets of Birmingham after another march and another arrest of King and found the streets—frighteningly—empty.