Reviewed by Judith Sheppard (Department of Communication and Journalism, Auburn University)
Published on H-South (August, 2001)
Preserving A Summer in Black and White
Preserving A Summer in Black and White
It is every writer's sorrow to know that sometimes the image really is more powerful than the word. Yet, faced with that fact and the image that proves it, no writer resents it. Like everyone else, the writer who sees a magnificent photograph, particularly one of historical significance, must pay attention and respect that compelling clarity.
Which is why the reader may come late to the excellent introduction to Faces of Freedom Summer, a book of 102 black-and-white images from Hattiesburg, Miss. In 1964 volunteers and locals worked together to register voters and improve the poor education available to Southern blacks at that time. It is impossible not to turn first to the glossy pages of photos, taken by Herbert Randall, then a young New York photographer on a fellowship, and read the names--and fates--of the people in them later.
But, as the writer also knows, in the end, words can make the images more meaningful. For instance: It makes a difference to have read the 60-page introduction by Bobs M. Tusa, archivist at the University of Southern Mississippi, and recall why you already know the name of Vernon Dahmer, pictured in several shots at an Independence Day fish fry he gave for Freedom School volunteers. A big-boned black farmer wearing a pith helmet and a Clark Gable mustache, a respected landowner and family man, he cooked fish in two large iron pots on a wood fire under the trees of his home, showed a real cotton plant to amusingly fascinated Northerners, and allowed his tractor to pull excited volunteers on a hay ride without the hay. The fact that Dahmer would, two years later, "lose his life defending his family" when that same home was ordered firebombed by a Ku Klux Klan wizard in a neighboring county (p. 11) lifts these pictures from well-composed snapshots to public record of a martyr.
Randall, who had received a John Hay Whitney Fellowship for Creative Photography grant to create an essay on black life and came reluctantly to Hattiesburg, took 1,759 negatives over July and August 1964. He has gone on to a distinguished career, but thought little of the work he did then. When Tusa contacted him and he donated the photos to USM, they remained in the sixteen brown envelopes he'd stuffed them in. "I have not stopped looking at them since," says Tusa of the pictures which, aside from 12 images printed in a 1965 book and a widely-distributed photo of Rabbi Arthur J. Lelyveld, beaten by a tire iron while in Mississippi registering voters, had never been printed. "Even Herbert Randall had not seen his Freedom Summer photographs, apart from contact prints and the photocopies I sent him, until he attended the opening of (a USM archives exhibit) on June 7, 1999," writes Tusa. "It was almost thirty-five years to the day since he had first focused his camera on the Mississippi Freedom Summer volunteers and clicked the shutter" (p. 4).
Tusa's careful, complete introduction recounts the history of the whole of Freedom Summer, its apparent failure and its ultimate success. Her work provides the wider context of the complicated, ambitious scheme of civil rights programs of that summer of which the Hattiesburg Freedom Schools and voter registration drive Randall photographed was a part. Freedom Summer was a project based in five districts in Mississippi (but not in rural areas, considered dangerous) under the umbrella of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), which was composed of groups with distinguished acronyms of their own: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, or "Snick"), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Mississippi chapters of the NAACP. These groups converged on Mississippi in 1964 because, said John Lewis, then chairman of SNCC, "If we can crack Mississippi, we will likely be able to crack (racial segregation) in the rest of the country" (p. 1).
More than 200 volunteers, black and white, came from outside the South -many from prominent families, like the young woman whose father was secretary to the Army under Truman, or the son of American architect Edward Durrel Stone--to teach in one of the 50 Freedom Schools or sign up voters. They came for many reasons, drawn by their ideals, testing their own mettle--a black Charlestonian spoke of his need to "confront (his) fear" (p. 14)--or otherwise seeking experience. Though Hattiesburg, largest Freedom Summer site with seven Freedom Schools, was sometimes "looked down upon as being 'too tame' by those who were seeking a summer of danger," according to SNCC field secretary Sheila Michaels, it was bad enough. SNCC records list 20 incidents of arrests, harassment and assaults, including the severe beating of Lelyveld on July 10 and another of volunteer Peter Werner on July 20.
The first, shocking photo of Lelyveld, his shirtfront drenched in blood and a square bandage partially covered his battered temple, is followed reassuringly by a snap of him laughing and joking with admiring supporters; nonetheless, he had to be hospitalized. A close-up of Werner, who was a naturalized American whose family had fled the Nazis, shows him clutching a telephone receiver; his shock over being assaulted from behind is as clear on his young face as his bruises. Another photo shows a young man pointing to bullet holes in the grille of the white Saab in which Randall had ridden to Hattiesburg from Ohio, hidden by a blanket during the day. Not only were there always the reports of violence around them, there was always the threat of violence amongst them, recalls Michaels, "always a truck across the street (from the Hattiesburg COFO office) with white men with a shotgun in the cab" (p. 18).
Few of the photos are so dramatic as those of Lelyveld and Werner. In many, you might feel you have wandered upon an ordinary gathering at a church with a lovely name like True Light or Priest Creek or Morning Star Baptist (though it was in Mount Zion Baptist that so much work occurred that it's now designated a historic civil rights site). It was hot, of course, and the heat soaks through the pictures the way it does every day in a Southern summer: cardboard church fans appear in almost every photo, and when Pete Seeger leads a group in "We Shall Overcome," sweat glistens on his face and throat, shirtsleeves rolled up as high as they'll go. People simply talk to each other, children play on a lawn or listen to a teacher, dressed-up folks meet in the pews.
In fact, the apparently ordinary surface of the photographs may lull the viewer into forgetting the history through which these people moved or missing, at first, the subtext, like the eagerness with which many Freedom School students welcome the gifts of words and music brought them. They snatch up books and magazines--sometimes the first clean copies they've held that weren't discards from white school systems--and pore over them, as in one photo where young black men are enthralled by their first copy of Ebony Magazine. In another, Lillie Dwight, her face a study in perfect beauty, bends over her pencil and paper; a young black man is in soft focus behind her, light glancing off his spectacles. Two children go through two volumes on a knocked-together bench in a Freedom School library; in one lovely, softly lit scene, a group of black children sitting on the floor turn lit, still faces up to folk singer Pete Seeger.
Randall's photos also show the world outside the schools and churches and its oppressively ordinary poverty. A minister strides along the railroad tracks, sheaf of registration forms under his arm; he passes blacks gathered on sagging porches of a string of never-painted shacks and shotgun houses. At one, he writes on forms laid on a stained mattress propped against a porch from which three poor blacks stare at him, faces troubled. Children clad in rags play beside the road, around torn screen doors and broken furniture. Four young girls giggle at the unseen photographer as a white volunteer interviews Hattie Mae Pough, hanging out washing she's just scrubbed on a washboard in one of four pails in her yard. In an eerie echo of a literary device in "The Great Gatsby," Randall leads us to the railroad tracks that, the caption says, divides white and black Hattiesburg. There a crude sign warns vehicles to STOP/ MISSISSIPPI LAW. And just beyond it, beaming from the "white side" of town, is a billboard image of the Sunbeam Bread girl, smiling over her white bread sandwich, her halo of golden curls and blue eyes a reversed image of the ragged and unsmiling black children she sees.
But in this book of haunting faces it is that of a young woman who is almost the epitome of dignified defiance who graces the cover. Gracie Hawthorne, a Hattiesburg activist, sits in profile in front of COFO Headquarters, her fearlessly unstraightened hair shaped in an Afro, partially obscuring SNCC's "One Man, One Vote" sign. What she is thinking we are not told. But her head is high, her faraway gaze unafraid. It's a lovely image.
"Viewing these pictures brings back feelings I thought I had done with, memories that I no longer visit even in my dreams," writes Victoria Jackson Gray Adams, who is frequently seen in the photos as a candidate for United States Senate from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, in a foreword. "Truly there was such a time, and there was such a people, as this pictorial work affirms ... The evidence of these pictures confirms, affirms, validates and reiterates the yearning for an orderly, peaceful and just world."
"Faces of Freedom Summer" is dedicated to Sandy Leigh, the vibrant SNCC field director who coordinated the Hattiesburg efforts, is shown in a number of photos and who, Tusa says, was so badly beaten in New York in 1970 that he can no longer remember those days. But he -- and we -- are lucky in this. For those who seek to step into a book that will make them feel as if they have just walked up to Mount Zion to mingle with the workers and the locals, who wonder what the intimate day-in and day-out of life in the heart of the civil rights movement might have been like, Faces of Freedom Summer, its text and its photos, is a rich opportunity.
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Judith Sheppard. Review of Tusa, Bobs M, Faces of Freedom Summer.
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