New Briscoe Center Photography Exhibit Captures Civil Rights Movement

There’s no one way to approach Struggle for Justice: Four Decades of Civil Rights Photography, the newest exhibit out of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. The curated collection doesn’t have a set chronological order, entry points, or guiding path. Instead, viewers choose how to take on the exhibit and make sense of a series of photos showcasing the long arc of civil rights history and the wide range of disparate characters involved.

The exhibit, consisting of powerful photos drawn exclusively from the center’s archives, documents the civil rights movement from the Jim Crow era in the 1930s to the era of black power in the 1970s.

“Photojournalism played a role in reporting the injustices and trials that [civil rights leaders] were going through. Without that photojournalistic record, we wouldn’t remember all of this nearly as well,” said Ben Wright, the center’s Assistant Director for Communications.

The square room housing the exhibit is roughly divided among five themes: segregation, leadership, iconic marches, contemporary successors, and hate. There are also cases in the room holding documents, photos, and dossiers focused on the movement in Alabama, pro- or anti-segregation politicians, and the fight for integration at UT.

The exhibit has iconic material: photos of civil rights heavyweights such as Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Malcolm X, and famous moments in Selma and Birmingham.  The collection features “Two Minutes,” a photo of civil rights leader and current congressman John Lewis as a student alongside fellow African-American peers. Together they are staring down state troopers mere minutes before a clash would later become known as Bloody Sunday.

The exhibit has a localized focus with photos of movements on campus at UT, civil rights leaders touring Texas, segregated locales around the state, and an emphasis on Dallas, a hotbed of segregationist sentiment nicknamed “City of Hate” in the 1960s.  

At UT and in Austin the exhibit has renewed importance, says Wright, given the potent flashpoint nature of issues such as confederate monuments, the resurgence of white supremacy, and the Fisher vs. UT Supreme Court cases concerning affirmative action.

As a sign upfront warns, the exhibit contains content that “may be difficult for some viewers,” from scenes of southerners and klansmen hoisting signs denouncing integration to protestors being arrested, hosed, and tear-gassed to firebombed schoolhouses and a clean bullet hole through a window, marking the assassin’s shot that killed civil rights activist Medgar Evers.

The collection also catalogues the range of characters that opposed the civil rights movement: jeering white students hurling epithets at an African American student, Alabama Gov. George Wallace notoriously blocking black students from entering a school, and Mississippian lawmen cracking down on the civil rights leaders.

“Photographers were brave and talented enough to capture not just snapshots but portraits of the civil rights movement,” Wright said. The exhibit pays homage to photographers and photojournalists who put themselves in harm’s way to produce visceral visual accounts that would outrage the public, jar a country from its complacency, and leave searing memories in the nation’s conscience.

James “Spider” Martin was the photographer of “Two Minutes.” His work is prominently featured, as is his correspondence. In one hastily scribbled note, he recalls: “There are state troopers looking at me. I thought they were going to shoot me.” Facing imminent danger, he was pulled away by a local, who sheltered and fed him. “I woofed [the food] down and started to leave, but she said I should eat the banana pudding. I said I had to go, but looked out and saw that Dallas County Police deputy with that big gun. I ate the Banana Puddin’,” he writes.

Such vignettes can be found throughout Struggle for Justice, offering an inside look into the pivotal but oft-forgot role played by photojournalists, who, as eyewitnesses, captured the intimate moments of the civil rights era and pushed evocative moments onto the front pages of newspapers nationwide.

The exhibit opened Nov. 9 and will remain at the Briscoe Center through June.  

Photos courtesy of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. 

 
 
 

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