The Photographs of Freedom Summer
As a liberal, feminist, left-coast native who was probably a Latina in a former life, I know what it’s like to feel like an ex-pat in my own country. I’ve adopted South Carolina as my home, it’s where I’ve put down roots and intend to stay. It’s a hard choice to explain to friends who haven’t been here. So when I found these words on the website for the 50th Anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom Summer Conference I just transposed the words South Carolina for Mississippi:
“When you are in Mississippi, the rest of America doesn’t seem real; and when you are in the rest of America, Mississippi doesn’t seem real.” – Dr. Robert “Bob” Moses, Program Director 1961-65 Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
I’ve driven through the Mississippi Delta. I have always been fascinated by the music birthed there, but it wasn’t until a fellow transplant to South Carolina encouraged me to drive the Blues Highway that I began to understand why those songs got written.
Now that same friend, Mississippi native Jane Hearn, has taken my education one giant leap further – she’s curated a photography exhibit debuting at Tougaloo College tomorrow for the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.
Curate isn’t nearly a descriptive-enough word for what she’s really done. She was married to a photographer named Jim Lucas (another reason we’re kindred spirits) and got stuck with 50,000 negatives when he died in a car accident on the set of a movie back in 1980. She’s lugged those boxes of negatives around for more than 30 years, unsure of what to do with them until news of the anniversary conference. It was a perfect time and place to honor her late-husband’s legacy – because among the 50,000 negatives were 4,000 documenting the civil rights movement from 1964-1968.
A lesser woman would have turned to bourbon facing that big of a challenge, but before Jane ended up in Beaufort with her second husband Terry she founded and directed an art colony at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. To say she’s got an eye for art and composition is an understatement and she comes from a long line of civil rights activists. She joined the Beaufort Photography Club to learn about negatives and processing and enlisted the help of a Florida-based photographer named Red Morgan to help her cull through the images.
Sometimes it’s a really good thing to live in a town so small all the artsy types know each other and become good friends. Jane’s husband Terry Stone threw a party at their house last weekend so we could all get a sneak peek at Lucas’s images before they begin a four-stop tour of the Delta.
It would be tragic if this show doesn’t make it to a museum here in South Carolina too. Lucas was witness to a movement not restricted to Mississippi, a history no Southern native or transplant can afford to forget. The photographs are truly documentary – he captured history as it was happening. Some images are still shocking, fifty years later. Newsmen waiting at the bombed out churches. The hastily-covered bodies Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner being wheeled into an autopsy. The fierce eyes of Wharlest Jackson Jr at his daddy’s funeral.
But Jane took care to include images of hope as well, so that this 50th anniversary doesn’t pass without acknowledging all that was accomplished as well as lost. Her young husband captured an even younger Marian Wright before the world knew her as the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. She’s leading her forehead into her fist, testifying before the Senate Subcommittee Hearings in 1967 – weary beyond her years. She’s the one who led Robert Kennedy into the sharecropper shacks to witness abject poverty first hard. She watched as he tried, for five minutes, to tickle and engage a baby too malnourished to respond.
Which is ultimately why Jim Lucas’s photographs are so important. They force a response, even fifty years later. I’m reminded of a quote from the late Maya Angelu.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Shock. Despair. Anger. Hope. These images, and those captured by so many other newsmen and even the freedom riders themselves, still make us feel.