This Light of Ours
We often think of history as words recorded in a textbook. But, some of the most powerful stories of our past are told through images. A new exhibit at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage documents a crucial period in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s through the work of nine photographers.
Martin Luther King Jr. led about 25,000 people into Montgomery, Alabama in March of 1965 as part of a demonstration to promote voter rights. Government officials in several Southern states were trying to suppress the African American vote by making it difficult to register. Historian Leslie Kelen says a rigged literacy test often made it impossible.
"The white people who took the literacy test, almost always passed," Kelen says. "And about 98% of the black people failed."
Kelen is Executive Director of the Utah-based Center for Documentary Expression and Art which has organized a traveling photo exhibition which tells the story of that voting rights march and other Civil Rights events of the mid-1960s. Currently on display at Cleveland’s Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, the exhibition gives a behind-the-scenes look at everything from quiet moments to violent confrontations.
The Montgomery demonstration brings many memories back to 81-year-old Otis Moss, Jr., who marched with King and for 33 years was pastor of Cleveland’s Olivet Institutional Baptist Church. Rev. Moss recalls that a previous march had resulted in a vicious attack by state troopers, leaving him with mixed emotions as he approached the city.
"It was a great moment of anticipation," he recalls. There was "acknowledgement of the danger, but we were also fully aware of the necessity."
Moss says they walked into Alabama’s capital city without incident, thanks, in part, to the powerful images of earlier violence that were printed and broadcast around the world. The federal government sent armed troops to accompany the demonstrators. The films and photographs focused global attention on the marchers and their safety.
"Within the Civil Rights community, was a sense that now, all of America and the world can see what we have been experiencing for decades," he says. "Here is the undeniable recording of human brutality that many people believed never happened. The picture becomes a message."
A year earlier, in June of 1964, a Mississippi voter registration drive known as “Freedom Summer” attracted over a thousand volunteers from outside the state. Ellen Rudolph, Executive Director, Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage says that included a prominent Jewish clergyman from Cleveland, named Arthur Lelyveld.
"He was a rabbi at Fairmount Temple, and he wanted to do what he could to help. And he was beaten. He happened to actually be with a photographer that day. After he was beaten up, he told the photographer to take a picture, and to capture that moment."
David Kordalski is the Creative Director at Crain’s Cleveland Business Magazine. He has spent over 30 years thinking about the power of images, and how best to use them in print.
"I think that a photographer’s role is to take people where they can’t go," he says. "We used to say that even on simple assignments at the Plain Dealer. But, in this particular case, there is a large swath of America that just didn’t know. It had never really been covered before in such a way. And to get there and have a front-row seat to history, brought there in the power of a still frame is just an absolutely remarkable feat."
These pictures of protests and violent confrontations between citizens and police are part of America’s historical record. But, some of the events of fifty years ago --- documented by photography --- have a familiar ring.
"We can’t look at these images and not think about what’s happening today, says the Maltz Museum's Ellen Rudolph.
Like the image captured by a security camera, documenting the shooting of Tamir Rice, on Cleveland’s west side. That scene helped rekindle a national discussion about race and justice in the same way that some of these photos on display at the Maltz Museum did fifty years ago.
Images have the power to tell us stories about ourselves and others in a way that words can’t always capture.