Not just faces in the crowd

February 04, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

It's not, on the face of it, one of the most dramatic photographs of the civil rights movement. It doesn't show a leader. It doesn't show an act of violence. It just shows people outside a columned building, grouped around an old man who raises his hand high in the air.

But this photograph sums up more than a century of African-American struggle.

The old man was named El Fondern. Born during the Civil War, he was 103 years old when this photograph was taken in 1966. He had just been to the courthouse in Batesville, Miss., to register to vote for the first time.

It's also a photo that sums up what the exhibit "Seeing Is Believing: The Photography of the Civil Rights Movement," just opened at Washington's National Museum of American History, is all about. It consists of photographs that document efforts to gain equality during the crucial years from 1954 to 1968.

The exhibit naturally contains pictures of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, but it isn't primarily about them. It's about ordinary people like El Fondern.

"We wanted to help the public to understand the complexity of the civil rights movement," says Lonnie Bunch, one of two co-curators. "Most people know of the important leaders. But the movement was also about people who lived in these individual communities and took fundamental and profound risks to effect social change."

There is a picture of Dr. King speaking at the 1963 march on Washington. But there's also one of a crowd of people -- old and young, black and white -- getting off the train in Washington the morning of the march. And another of an unidentified black man holding a sign at the march that just reads "Now!"

These pictures range from the horrible to the inspiring. They're largely of people whose names we will never know, such as: people on the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., lying on the ground after they've been attacked by the police with whips, tear gas and horses; a group of young white people protesting in Alabama in 1963, one of whom carries a sign reading "Communist Jews Behind Race-Mixing"; and, a single young black woman who carries a sign that just says "Justice."

The expression on the woman's face makes clear the spirit behind the sign, according to co-curator Robert Phelan. "It's not a demand. It's a statement and a question at the same time."

Sixty-four images from thousands of photographs of the civil rights movement were chosen by Mr. Bunch, the history museum's assistant director for curatorial affairs, and Mr. Phelan, instructor in art history at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.

There are photos by major photojournalists -- such as Flip Schulke, Bob Adelman, Spider Martin and Joe Holloway Jr. -- but this is not a show about photographers or aesthetics. The approach is historical.

Nevertheless, given the scope of the subject and the number of photographs -- an average of about six per section -- individual images must be telling. And they are.

The first section, called "That Which Went Before," deals with better-known aspects of the history of race relations, such as lynchings -- 4,743 recorded lynchings between 1882 and 1968, or more than one a week for 87 years. But it also deals with the day-to-day racism blacks encountered everywhere.

Nothing could make the point better than a 1958 photograph of a black woman looking at two figures walking down the street in Montgomery, Ala., dressed in Ku Klux Klan regalia in full daylight. "[They're] as comfortable as pie," says Mr. Bunch. "That was less than 40 years ago, and it was an acceptable way of life."

It's hard to imagine today how the act of two people of different races sharing a seat could engender not only hatred but violence. A picture from the section on freedom rides and sit-ins shows us a freedom riders' bus that was forced off the road in Anniston, Ala., in 1961. It was set afire by a mob, who then "tried to barricade the freedom riders inside," the picture's label informs.

Another photo, of a sit-in at a lunch counter, brings back memories to Mr. Bunch, 44, who is African-American. He grew up in New Jersey but had relatives in North Carolina. He remembers, as a child of 6 or so, going to a Woolworth's in Raleigh, where blacks were only served standing up.

"A relative pulled me out of a chair and down to the section where you stood up and they served you your hamburger," he says. "And [I remember] seeing white people sitting down, and all of those empty chairs. I swear I never ate another Woolworth's hamburger."

The exhibit's section on the vote, with its moving photo of El Fondern, is one of the show's smaller ones, but it deals with the most fundamental concern of the civil rights movement. "While the public events associated with the civil rights movement -- marches, consciousness-raising activities -- were very important, more important was the idea of obtaining, keeping and utilizing the right to vote," says Mr. Phelan.

As much as the civil rights movement did, it didn't do everything. "Segregation is no longer the official policy of America," but economic advances for African-Americans have lagged, says Mr. Bunch. "Millions still live in America's inner cities and labor as sharecroppers."

By showing the heroic actions of ordinary Americans of the past, exhibits such as "Seeing Is Believing" may spur progress among a new generation. To Mr. Bunch, a specialist in African-American history, "This show, and my whole career, are about paying homage to those who went before."

ART REVIEW

What: "Seeing Is Believing: Photography of the Civil Rights Movement"

Where: National Museum of American History, Constitution Avenue and 14th Street, N.W., Washington

When: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily

$ Call: (202) 357-2700

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