Lessons from the not-so-distant past: How photos of the civil rights movement can inspire us today

History often seems to take place on a stage distant from our own experience – yet the exhibition “Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956-1968,” which opened at the Skirball on Nov. 19, reminds us that even our recent past can deliver a strong message for our times.

“Road to Freedom” is a collection of more than 170 iconic images by more than 35 photographers – including Danny Lyon, Morton Broffman, Charles Moore, Bruce Davidson and Gordon Parks – spanning the civil rights movement. It moves from Rosa Parks’ arrest in 1955 to Martin Luther King Jr.’s death and funeral in 1968. The show is accompanied by several other exhibitions, including Eric Etheridge’s “Breach of Peace.”

“Road to Freedom” comes to the Skirball from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, where it was conceived and organized by photo curator Julian Cox. It fits the Skirball’s mission to express “the vitality of American democratic ideals,” said Skirball associate curator, Erin Clancey: “The images in this exhibition are iconic of the democratic process.”

The show is, indeed, striking on several levels. First of all, the historical aspect: Although we may recall the civil rights movement as a series of sit-ins, protests and marches, today, four decades later, it seems like ancient history, a distant memory. It is hard to believe that not so long ago African Americans in this country lived under conditions that claimed to be “separate but equal” but were anything but. A 1962 image by Lyon taken in Georgia shows two water fountains: one, a solid block of metal of the type one sees at schools, beneath the sign: “White.” Next to it, a smaller, and in every way lesser, fountain stands under the sign “Colored.” It is a simple image that clearly depicts the second-class status once afforded American blacks.

The exhibition takes the viewer on a panoramic tour of the civil rights struggle as it progressed from freedom riders to the early protests in Birmingham to the March on Washington, and the march from Selma to Montgomery. There is also a section on Los Angeles and the 1965 Watts riots (added for the Skirball) as well as one on the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr.

The photographs in this exhibit vividly capture the violence perpetrated against those who dared challenge the status quo: Joseph Postiglione’s images of an integrated Greyhound bus set on fire in Alabama; Bill Hudson’s of a police dog attacking a young African American man in Birmingham; Charles Moore’s photos of fire hoses turned against crowds to disperse and subdue protesters; and a shot of blood-spattered John Lewis and Jim Zwerg, beaten in Montgomery. And there are the photos of the Klan and crosses burning in the night that remain frightening to this day.

This exhibition reminds us that in this battle for human rights and dignity, lives were at stake. A section of the show is devoted to James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, an African American and two white (and Jewish) freedom riders who were arrested by the police and released to Klan members, who murdered them. Another section contains photos from the funeral of King, including Constantine Manos and Bob Adelman’s photos of the great civil rights leader lying in his open casket.

The overall effect is immersive and moving.

The role of the press in making the civil rights cause a national one is also a part of this show. Today, when the mainstream media is often derided and facing danger of being dismantled, it is important to recall the outrage, shame and call to action these images produced in everyday citizens, politicians and even in Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

At the same time, the companion exhibit, Eric Etheridge’s “Breach of Peace,” offers a wonderful window into the lives of the 1961 wave of freedom riders, pairing their mug shots with portraits of them today. It is fascinating to read about what motivated them to get involved and what has become of them. Many continued on as political activists, some on the local or even national level – yet, overall, they were just people who became motivated to play a role in history and were, for the most part, changed by the experience. Among those featured are the stories of Bob Filner, then a Cornell student from Queens, today a congressman from San Diego; Jorgia Siegel, then a freshman at Berkeley, today teaching Lamaze classes in Santa Barbara; and Joan Pleune, then a senior at Berkeley, today active in the Granny Peace Brigade protesting the war in Iraq.

As part of the exhibition, one can also watch the award-winning short documentary film, “Voices of Freedom,” which includes both historical footage and present-day interviews with photographers and activists from the era, co-produced by Cox and produced, directed and edited by Neal Broffman, son of photographer Morton Broffman.

Another short documentary, “Partners on the Road to Freedom,” produced with excerpts from the PBS documentary “The Jewish Americans,” on the role of Jewish Americans in the civil rights movement and their common cause with African Americans is shown continuously in the exhibition space. It is definitely worth watching and includes footage of the German-born Rabbi Joachim Prinz’s speech at the March on Washington, where he spoke of the Jewish community’s bond with the African American community as “solidarity born of our own painful experience.”

Two companion exhibitions are also on view. One is “After 1968,” which also was conceived by the High Museum and includes recent and commissioned works by young artists born in or after 1968. The other, titled “An Idea Called Tomorrow,” was co-conceived by the Skirball and the California African American Museum (CAMM) in Exposition Park, and organized by CAMM, showcases works by 12 contemporary artists that address issues of social justice and the active role we all must take in that process. This last show will be on view at both museums.

The combination of the “Road to Freedom,” “After 1968” and “An Idea Called Tomorrow,” Clancey points out, addresses civil rights’ “past, present and future.”

After having a few days to let the exhibition’s images sink in, I found that I kept thinking of the photographer Moneta Sleet Jr.’s image of a young King reading a book on Gandhi. In all the talk of civil rights and protest, it is easy to forget that the key tactic of King’s battle was militant nonviolence. As the exhibition details, protesters were trained to respond to taunts, insults and violence with nonviolence. In the civil rights struggle, practicing nonviolence exposed the weakness of the oppressors, giving protesters the moral high ground and affirming the justice of their cause.

The power of nonviolence is the message that stayed with me long after I finished touring the exhibit – and it is what makes “Road to Freedom” relevant to our times and so fitting for the Skirball, whose own permanent collection highlights the struggle for freedom and the power of democracy.

King was murdered more than 40 years ago. He is still celebrated, but his message of nonviolence now seems forgotten.

The conflicts of our recent times, most notably in the Middle East, have been stories of responding to violence with violence in the search for peace and freedom. As the Middle East leaders and their antagonists harden their positions, I wonder what would happen if their own people, along with their supporters at home and throughout the world, were to embrace the militant nonviolence of the civil rights movement.

Given the present situation and current times, it seems an impossible tactic, almost laughable. Yet looking at the photos in the “Road to Freedom” – at what the freedom riders, the protesters and the marchers faced, and the dream they made possible – I wondered whether the true path to peace and freedom wasn’t staring me in the face.

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Copyright 2009 Tommywood