This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement &
Beaches, Benches and Boycotts: The Civil Rights Movement in Tampa Bay
Through Dec. 1
Civil Rights & the Media
Thurs., Sept. 17, 6:30 p.m.
Florida Holocaust Museum, 55 5th St. S., St. Petersburg,
Last week I had the comedic good fortune to hear Charles Blow, a political columnist for the New York Times, speak at Eckerd College on the same day that Kentucky clerk Kim Davis was released from jail, where she spent five nights for refusing to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Blow, like many in the media, was succinct in his dismissal of one right-wing Christian columnist’s comparison of Davis to Rosa Parks. “No one who has ever even breathed on a history book would say so,” he told the crowd at Eckerd. The line was a hit. Then, during the Q&A, the largely white audience asked, essentially, “How can we help?” to improve race relations. Blow elaborated that understanding the relationship between civil rights history and enduring inequities is a start.
This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement, an exhibition of 157 black-and-white photographs at the Florida Holocaust Museum, offers a point of entry. Shot mostly between 1963 and 1966 by nine photographers associated, in most cases, with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a key activist group, the images provide a behind-the-scenes look at the civil rights movement. Famous figures and momentous moments are pictured —Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. marching at Selma; Southern black delegates protesting for representation at the 1964 Democratic Convention. But just as affecting, if not more so, are the many images of a more banal register, like one of ordinary women — all black save one — biding time outside a voter registration office in Clinton, Louisiana, their actions on that day heroic.
Collectively these photographs offer not only a chance to revisit facts of history that many Americans have never really learned, but also to feel through images — the magic of photography — the inhumanity of man that pervaded that period of American life, echoes of which we are feeling now. In the pictures, the threat of violence is constant. Take Matt Herron’s 1964 photograph of two men, a white SNCC volunteer and a black resident armed with a shotgun, seated between shelves of books. Facing away from the photographer and toward a window framing pitch black night sky, the two men guard a library — a library — for one of the Freedom Schools set up in Mississippi by the group during Freedom Summer, which local white residents had threatened to bomb. A portrait by Bob Fitch shows an Alabama man, young, handsome and gazing steadily at the photographer, with a horrific laceration cut into the top of his head from a beating by the Ku Klux Klan; photographer Herbert Randall captures a white rabbi (a movement volunteer) spattered with his own blood after an attack by a white supremacist.
I don’t mean to suggest that the exhibition is gruesome — many of the photographs in it are uplifting — but the selection is forthright in a way that resonates with the current sense of urgency around Black Lives Matter. If you’ve hesitated at all to believe that the black body has been historically under siege in America, spend some time here.
Other photographers in the exhibition include Bob Fletcher, a Clearwater resident who practices law as well as photography. Several of his images document SNCC’s efforts to register voters in Lowndes County, Alabama, a Klan hotbed where black residents were utterly disenfranchised. Tracking the development of the black panther as a symbol of black suffrage — not directly related to the California-based Black Panther Party — as it was used by the Lowndes County Freedom Organization to get out the vote and direct voters toward pro-black candidates, these are among the most intriguing images of grassroots change, effected by everyday citizens with a fierce desire for empowerment, in the exhibition.
A second display on the theme of civil rights, Beaches, Benches and Boycotts: The Civil Rights Movement in Tampa Bay, brings the question home, but unfortunately not through photographic prints of the kind you’d expect in an exhibition. Situated on FHM’s third floor, the display consists of didactic panels printed with archival Tampa Bay Times photographs and text. The content is striking — even more immediate and jarring than the more regional story told downstairs, in some ways — but after the beautiful prints of This Light of Ours, Beaches feels like a disappointment. The real interests here are objects (though they’ve been exhibited before at the museum): a pair of waiting room doors from an Ybor City doctor’s office, for separate white and “colored” access, installed at the entrance to the display, and one of Central Avenue’s famously hospitable green benches, where black individuals were not allowed to sit during segregation.
Still, it’s worth cozying up to the panels for a glimpse of lunch counter sit-ins and public pool and beach swim-ins that local residents staged in their battle against Jim Crow. Of particular poignancy is a 1960 photograph of a lunch counter sit-in at the S.H. Kress in St. Petersburg, where two tight-lipped waitresses hastily close the counter as a black employee looks on. (By the end of the year, the lunch counter served both black and white customers.)
On Thursday, a panel discussion takes up the topic of civil rights and the media today with Eric Deggans, TV critic for NPR (and formerly of the Tampa Bay Times); Gypsy Gallardo, publisher and editor-in-chief of Power Broker Magazine and CEO of The 2020 Plan, which aims to reduce poverty in South St. Pete; Herb Snitzer, a photographer and civil rights activist known for his portraits of great jazz musicians; Times columnist Ernest Hooper moderates.