Germantown photo exhibit a reminder of Civil Rights voting fight
November 5, 2012By Jessie Williams
These photographs are a weighty reminder of how many struggled for the right to afford every American a voice.
The following is a work of opinion submitted by the author.
Robert J. Brand shot a series of black-and-white photographs during a three-week period in 1966, when, according to the artist, "10,000 people, men and women from all parts of the country, rich, poor, and those in the middle, came to Mississippi, to walk with James Meredith, to go to Jackson, to demand the right to vote, to stand up against fear."
Taken more than 40 years ago, when Brand was only 20, these images speak to our current political climate and to the resurrected fight to ensure that each American is afforded a counted vote.
A collection of those photos, "It Has Always Been About Voting," runs through Nov. 24 at the Imperfect Gallery in Germantown.
Brand was one of thousands who were inspired to suspend their normal lives and join the marches for civil rights across the country. But unlike most, Brand came armed with a camera and documented what he saw along the road.
Young girls holding signs reading "Freedom Now" are terrifyingly contrasted with images of white men leaning from cars, bearing shotguns, and wearing shirts sewn from Confederate flags. Intimidating rows of armed policemen are juxtaposed with even younger children leaning from broken balconies, watching the marchers pass.
There are black men of all ages singing and clapping, alternately enthusiastic or weary, exhausted or ferocious. There are crowds surrounding Martin Luther King, Jr., lines of peaceful marchers, men resting on street corners, black and white women forming human chains with arms linked together.
These are deeply personal photographs, rooted at ground level and particular in their ability to convey the atmosphere of the march as one marcher saw it. The result for the viewer is a feeling of intimate inclusion, of being secretly allowed access to an essential and singular exploration of this country's movement towards equality.
The photograph called "No one moves forward alone. Each step we take we take with others" stands out in its composition and tone. Where most of the photographs capture groups of people gathered or in motion, this picture has only two subjects — one black man escorting one black woman up the steps of a Mississippi courthouse. It is taken from behind, so that all we know of the pair is how they are dressed — he in a straw hat and white T-shirt bearing the words "FREEDOM NOW" across his shoulders, she in a pressed blouse and plaid skirt, a hat with a bow, and a handbag demurely hung from her bent elbow.
But their body language conveys much more. Only the slightest bit behind her, he is clearly her escort, ushering her carefully, and protectively toward the building. His hand is on her back, his fingers disappearing into the fold of her upper arm. Their identical stride is one of determination, both right feet firmly planted, both left feet raised and poised to land again. In two more paces, the heel of her shoe will fall on the stone step, and in three, the figures will disappear into the darkness of the courthouse, where neither they nor we know what awaits. It is a wrenchingly poignant picture, one of solidarity and care, protectiveness and inclusion, and it encapsulates the feeling of the show as a whole.
Brand, who is our own escort, leads us too on this specific and personal journey, each carefully chosen subject and sharply distilled study, allowing us in on what it must have been like to play a part in this moment of fear and fellowship in the construction of our democracy, a democracy whose outcome was not at all determined at the time these pictures were taken.
These photographs are a weighty reminder of how many struggled for the right to afford every American a voice. All 22 pieces are hung accompanied by meticulously chosen quotations — some awful, others inspirational — and make this more a multimedia history lesson than an art exhibit.
They also provide a chilling admonition to a country in danger of slipping back. For those currently on the fence about whether or not to vote in the upcoming election, this is the show to see before Tuesday. It will reaffirm for the jaded, bitter, or politically weary how hard-won the right to vote was, how precious a commodity it remains, and how worthwhile the fight to keep it.
Jessie Williams is a writer living in Philadelphia.