Marching children framing a state police sharpshooter. Maria Varela Near Jackson, Mississippi, 1966
How does it feel to experience the Civil Rights Movement through the eyes of people who were a very integral part of it? “This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement” exhibit at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art takes viewers back to this crucial era (1963-1968) in American history through its collection of 157 black-and-white images.
The exhibit, which opens during Black History Month, runs February 14th through May 10th. Nine activist photographers from two generations and various ethnic backgrounds, spotlight the stories of struggle against segregation. The deeply moving images document efforts made by everyday citizens to register voters, hold workshops, and march for civil rights. Memphis Parent spoke to Brooks’ Chief Curator Marina Pacini to learn more about this timely show.
Memphis Parent: The exhibition is named after Harry Dixon Loes’ “This Little Light of Mine,” a children’s gospel song and the movement’s anthem. Why this title?
Marina Pacini: The song is extremely apt for the civil rights movement as it’s about resilience in the face of adversity, it’s about having faith in yourself and not being cowed. These characteristics were necessary for those involved in the movement, as they faced enormous hardships and obstacles. The exhibition celebrates the efforts of people who were steadfast in opposing racism.
MP: The photographers worked primarily with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), bringing their personal experience to the audience. One photographer, Matt Herron, moved to Jackson, Mississippi in 1963 to become part of the movement. What impact does this involvement have on their images?
Pacini: The fact that the photographers were part of the movement meant they had access to people and events that journalists did not. The relationship between the photographers and their subjects is evident in the many deeply personal images taken at churches and in people’s homes.
MP: One compelling photo by Maria Varela (see above) portrays children framed around a state police sharpshooter during a march.
Pacini: That photograph is one of my favorites. It is a beautifully composed image that clearly lays out the differences between the participants. On either side of the photograph are young, innocent children. They are framing a uniformed officer in the background who holds a rifle as he stands behind the open door of a car with a Mississippi state map on it. Varela has highlighted the difference between the armed state and unarmed citizens. As two of the children were looking at Varela when she took the photograph, they end up looking directly at us, the viewers. This serves to further connect us to the kids as opposed to the officer in the background.
MP: What is the exhibit’s message?
Pacini: The exhibition powerfully demonstrates how ordinary citizens can work together against tremendous challenges and odds to change things for the better.
Creation Station: Express Yourself • February 14, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Free with admission. Teacher Workshop • February 21, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Free. Registration required. Talk by Matt Heron, photographer and curator of “This Light of Ours” • February 26, 7-8 p.m. Free with admission. Additional events take place in March.
For more information, visit brooksmuseum.org or call 544-6200.