Look intently at the images. Think about what they mean.
Then consider that these images of the civil rights movement — some of them disturbing — reflect what actually happened in this country within the lifetimes of many readers of this newspaper, including this reporter.
It’s impossible to walk away without feeling that this period of intense activism that peaked roughly 50 years ago — despite the black-and-white photography that places it in the distant past — is still very much a part of our shared time and space, still a part of our daily conversation.
“Struggle for Justice: Four Decades of Civil Rights Photography,” on view through July 21 at the Briscoe Center for American History on the University of Texas campus, takes the watchful viewer through the stark realities of segregation; gives candid glimpses of civil rights leaders as they meet and organize; revives memories of on-the-streets activism including major marches; puts the violence and intimidation directed at protesters front and center; and reminds even those without a penchant for history that the midcentury social justice efforts, even after schools and universities were legally integrated and basic voting rights were secured, are far from over.
With its vast cache of photojournalism from the period, the Briscoe is singularly positioned to share images that helped shape the outcome of the movement.
“At the time, the images of the struggles for racial equality that photographers produced, sometimes rousing, sometimes wrenching, helped to promote the messages and empower the individuals of the movement,” says Steven Kasher, author of “The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-68.” “Today those images are an essential part of America’s collective historical memory.”
Decade by decade
The first section of the exhibit, located directly inside the entrance of the Briscoe’s still-new galleries only a few yards from the LBJ Presidential Library, shows the lie behind Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision that endorsed “separate but equal” schools, theaters, restaurants and public transportation for blacks and whites in the South.
“These Jim Crow laws, in addition to voter suppression and the threat of institutional and mob violence, meant that ‘separate but equal’ was inherently false, often to a tragically or farcical degree,” the show’s curators write. “As the images in this section show, black Americans were treated like second-class citizens in their own nation.”
In one picture, we see African-Americans in freshly pressed clothes crowded under a sign that reads “Colored Waiting Room” at a Dallas-area bus station. In another, we stare at a plain, white, wooden building with a tiny portico in the Texas town of Italy that bears the sign “Colored City Hall.”
A picture of a black school facility in Euless from 1950 reveals a scene of chaos and dilapidation. Yet another image shows two young sisters walking to school through the intimidating Rock Island rail switchyard in Topeka, Kan., the year before the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision.
A picture of a cocky white storekeeper in a work apron outside a shop adorned with a “Whites Only” sign is placed near to an anodyne photo of black bobby-soxers protesting a state fair in 1955. More horrific are the images of a black prisoner in shackles in Sherman in 1930 and a lynch mob massed around a man accused of rape.
In the next section, curators focus on the postwar leaders of the resistance to Jim Crow laws and other instruments of white supremacy. They organized in groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, all seemingly mainstream in retrospect. As we know, John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, James Farmer, Julian Bond and their cohort were not treated as mainstream by those in power.
Among the quick observations: King looked so young during the 1950s. Women wore hats and gloves, men almost always dressed in coats and ties. American flags and legal books are often spied in the background. The ancient tools of petitions, ballots and press statements are everywhere in evidence.
Farther on in this section, we encounter players, such as Malcolm X, Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, who did not have as much faith in nonviolence and advocated for any means to defend African-Americans. X’s potent charisma pops out of the frames of these images, including one of X and Muhammad Ali, chins up, smiling as they are surrounded by admirers at a counter.
The next grouping is devoted to public activism, such as the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965 and the Black Power salutes at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Visual accounts of the 1963 March on Washington suggest a high degree of organization with mass-produced signs and the visible presence of labor unions, as well as a camera-ready mix of races. A scene during a lunch counter sit-in shows calm, defiant faces, while picket lines outside a movie theater in Dallas mirror similar protests at the Paramount Theatre in Austin during the same period.
The crucial presence of photographers and videographers is inescapable. Freedom Riders make ready subjects of vulnerability and courage as they are protected by the National Guard. In a particularly mesmerizing photo, protesters in swimsuits perform a “wade-in” at a St. Augustine, Fla., beach. They had planned to integrate a motel swimming pool, but the manager poured acid in the water. In the image, we see concern but also determination on the faces of the protesters as they are escorted by uniformed men.
The most famous image in the exhibit, recently acquired by the Briscoe, is “Two Minute Warning,” taken by photojournalist Spider Martin on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, as marchers tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma. Armed white officers are on the left; African-American protesters without weapons to the right. The lead trooper threatens the black men with his pointed finger. Not long after this tense moment, troopers, some of them mounted, tore into peaceful demonstrators.
‘A Fire That Won’t Go Out’
One of the signature images of the exhibit shows two black women with arms over the shoulders of a white woman singing on their way from Selma to Montgomery. It’s important to be reminded of these moments of racial solidarity before entering the next section, titled “A Fire That Won’t Go Out.”
We see here the brutal responses of mobs and police forces — water cannons, batons and tear gas — as well as the unmasked hatred in the faces of white counterdemonstrators. As the curators point out, those documenting these events took personal risks to obtain these images, another echo of today’s political and media climate.
In fact, such racially charged are words on the counterprotesters’ signs, a newspaper today would not publish some of these images without providing a good deal of context. The least offensive is a placard held by a white woman in pearls, black cocktail dress and high heels: “Get the Beatnik Bums Out of Bama.”
The implied violence is just as disturbing. In one scene, Sheriff Billy Ferrell is showing a group of smiling Mississippi white men how to wield a billy club against protesters. We see the results of such beatings, including a young man from the NAACP in 1951 who stares through his bandages that cover multiple ugly wounds. In a wince-worthy image, we see Coretta Scott King watching uniformed men arresting her husband for attempting to attend a court hearing. His arms are twisted back and his body heaves over in surprise and alarm.
Lest we forget, the Confederate flag was brandished regularly by the white counterprotesters during this period.
For those who lived through the period, it’s also painful to revisit the parade of assassinations — MLK, Medgar Evers and more — and the grief and rage that they produced.
The exhibit does not stint on the movement’s wins, such as the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision that brought down legal segregation in public schools. “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren. Although deemed unconstitutional, segregation has continued in many forms for decades.
Ten years later, however, came the Civil Rights Act of 1964 followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. While these and other judicial decisions and legislation eroded some of the worst effects of segregation, the curators endorse the idea that the project is incomplete. One needs only open a newspaper — or browse the news online — to find echoes of this midcentury struggle for basic civil rights.
And one of the best places to find out about the visual history of the period is right here in Austin.
“The Briscoe Center has assembled an unsurpassed collection of civil rights movement photography,” author Kasher says, “one which includes the entire archives of several of the most important photographers. The Briscoe is now indispensable to those researching the history of civil rights struggles in the United States and beyond.”
‘Struggle for Justice: Four Decades of Civil Rights Photography’
Through July 21
Briscoe Center for American History
2300 Red River St.