STRAINS OF THE old protest songs kept going through my head last week as I walked through the Smithsonian's new photo exhibit on the civil rights era.
The show, titled simply "We Shall Overcome," is on view through Feb. 8 at the National Museum of American History in Washington.
It documents a time not too long ago when segregation was the law and those who opposed it -- black and white -- literally risked their lives to awaken the conscience of a nation.
By coincidence, on my return to Baltimore I was greeted by reports that the Maryland Ku Klux Klan planned to march in Annapolis Feb. 7 to protest the observance of Black History Month.
It was a painful reminder that the moral victory celebrated in the Smithsonian show remains contested, and that the soul-sickness of America's 300-year-old racial dilemma may be in remission, but is still far from eradicated.
We tend to think of revolutions as the triumph of great leaders confronting world-historical forces. The civil rights movement certainly revolutionized America, and names like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael have assumed legendary status.
What strikes one about the Smithsonian exhibit, however, is its homage to the role played by thousands of ordinary people who suddenly found themselves caught up in the struggle.
Unaccustomed to the limelight, rendered nearly invisible by custom and the complacency of their tormentors, without allies or money or even the certain support of their own government, they nevertheless managed to summon resources of courage, determination and strength that still amaze.
One day in 1965, for example, Arlene Quinn took her four #F children to the Executive Mansion in Jackson, Miss., to protest elections in districts where no blacks were allowed to vote. When the Quinns were refused admittance, they waited on the steps outside.
Photographer Matt Herron captured the moment when the Quinns' peaceful protest was met with a violent response from the Mississippi Highway Patrol. The officers ripped up Mrs. Quinn's poster and arrested the entire family.
One of Herron's photos shows an enraged highway patrolman tearing an American flag from the hands of 5-year-old Anthony Quinn; the little boy is bent over nearly backward as he tenaciously tries to hold onto this frail symbol of citizenship.
Charles Moore was a photographer for the Montgomery Advertiser in 1966 when the city editor called down to say he believed some sort of confrontation was shaping up just down the street from the newspaper's offices.
Moore raced to the scene just in time to see a group of white men attack two black women shoppers with baseball bats and chains. The day before, a group of students had tried to integrate the cafeteria at the Alabama Capitol, and angry whites apparently had targeted the women shoppers in retaliation simply because they were black.
"It makes me sick every time I see it," Moore said in a recently published interview. "It was a pretty powerful statement about what lengths white people in the South could go to, to stop integration."
That same year photographer Bob Fitch captured 115-year-old El Fondern as he came out of the courthouse in Batesville, Miss., after registering to vote for the first time in his life.
The crowd of supporters awaiting him is jubilant. They lift the old man onto their shoulders; he responds by raising a thin arm over his head in a gesture of triumph.
These pictures implicitly raise the question of whether they should be considered history or art. For art historian Robert Phelan, who curated the Smithsonian show, the answer clearly is both. "While aesthetics are what initially drew me to these photographs, it was the visceral power of the images and their use to achieve just ends which maintained my interest," he has said.
Photography's peculiar power lies in its illusion of objectivity. In fact, nothing could be more subjective, more contingent. Every photograph is an isolated moment, a tiny sliver of fluid temporal reality frozen and preserved as if in amber.
And yet life constantly arranges itself in forms that allow the camera's eye to record its integrity and meaning. The photographers of the civil rights movement managed to capture those decisive moments and so reveal the universality of the human hunger for freedom and dignity.
Through the act of bearing witness, they were as transformed by those moments as were the people they photographed and those who viewed their pictures. Thirty years later the truth of what they saw still shines through, and the darkness does not comprehend it.
Pub Date: 1/25/98