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The Long Road: From Selma to Ferguson
The Long Road: From Selma to Ferguson at Monroe Gallery of Photography
IN June 1964, civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were in Neshoba County, Mississippi, hoping to garner support from the community for a free educational facility called a Freedom School, part of a nationwide effort to improve the social conditions and equality of African-Americans. On the night of June 21, the three men were hunted down, captured, and shot by members of a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in a conspiracy aided and abetted by members of the local law enforcement. In the midst of growing civil unrest, photojournalist Steve Schapiro, whose images from the civil rights era have become ingrained in the lexicon of American history, was in Neshoba County on assignment for Life magazine. “I was really the first photographer to come to Mississippi right after the civil rights workers disappeared,” Schapiro told Pasatiempo. “I had seen this burly sheriff in a town square. I was taking pictures. He came up to me and took the camera out of my hand, opened the back, threw the film on the ground, and handed me back my camera. I didn’t realize he was Sheriff Rainey, who was one of the ringleaders in the killings.” The sheriff, Lawrence Rainey, denied allegations of his involvement and was later acquitted of the murders, but the case underscored the nature of what people fighting for desegregation and the end of discrimination were up against: the maintenance of the status quo. “It was a nonviolent, church-motivated grouping against people who had grown up in a particular way and wanted to preserve what they had grown up with.”
Schapiro’s black-and-white photographs are at the heart of Monroe Gallery of Photography’s group exhibition, The Long Road: From Selma to Ferguson, documenting the history of the movement from the 1960s to the present day through more than 50 compelling images: Stanley J. Forman’s The Soiling
of Old Glory, depicting a man using an American flag pole to spear an African-American man, and Charles Moore’s image of demonstrators being fire-hosed in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 are among them. “There are probably five or six photographers who photographed the civil rights marchers and their pictures were shown a fair amount,” Schapiro said. “We lived, at that time, in a period of journalism where Life and other magazines really were the core of what the country saw. News was just coming out of its 15 minutes at six o’clock period and slowly getting into 24-hour news. Still, the magazines held sway for a little longer.”
Schapiro’s work appeared in The New York Times Magazine and other prominent U.S. publications such as Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, and People. But it was his photos of the marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, many of which were shot for Life, that resonate today in light of recent protests and demonstrations over police brutality, particularly in African-American communities. “Three of my favorite pictures, which I think are in the show, are the panorama of Martin Luther King Jr. with lieutenants leading the march where you can see only about 300 people behind him, which was all that were allowed to march on the highway; the protester laughing at the troopers; and a picture which I really love of the people standing on the street in Montgomery, the onlookers.” The last of the three pictures depicts several African-Americans observing the Selma march from street level as a group of white men watch from a balcony above. The image itself speaks of segregation offering a dramatic contrast between the two groups of onlookers. “It’s only been six or seven months now since I discovered those pictures and a number of others which had never been edited, printed, or published before. It’s particularly amazing with regard to the panorama shot. It was an image I never caught on to until I started working on a book for Taschen on civil rights. I discovered this image, which I’d never really seen. What happened with Life is your film would go by American Airlines overnight to a lab that would print it. It was not until much, much later that you ever saw your contact sheets.”
One of Schapiro’s images from 1965, titled Stop Police Killings, seems culled from the headlines of today’s news. In the wake of the police killings of unarmed African-Americans — Eric Garner in New York on July 17, 2014, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 9, 2014, and Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, on April 4 of this year, to highlight just a few of several recent high-profile incidents — Schapiro’s photograph reminds us that such killings have a long and sordid history, one of the reasons that public outcry over the latest incidents, calling for an end to the practice of racial profiling, have become part of a national dialogue on race relations in the U.S. When she saw Schapiro’s photo, St. Louis-based photojournalist Whitney Curtis was taken aback. “When I was covering Ferguson, that phrase ‘stop police killings’ was on a very popular T-shirt people were wearing out on the street,” she told Pasatiempo. Whitney’s photographs from the Ferguson protests are included in The Long Road exhibition. In one, a man holds a cell phone to record the police in Ferguson during a demonstration. The image puts one in mind of the role of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook in disseminating knowledge of events as they unfold, reaching unprecedented numbers of people.
It is precisely these kinds of images by Whitney — fires burning during a riot, a man with his arms raised in what has become known as the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture, facing off against armored personnel vehicles — that stir up memories from decades past and remind us that, though laws have changed, some attitudes have not. Whitney’s shot of Rashaad Davis, an unarmed African-American backing away from St. Louis police offers in riot gear with their weapons drawn, occurred moments before Rashaad was arrested, apparently because of a warrant for failure to appear in court. “I was able to track him down two or three months later,” Whitney said. “That’s how I know his name. He had actually been in pain for months after that arrest. The warrant should have been dropped a year prior. He was released without charges after two months.”
Whitney received a call from The New York Times the day after Brown’s death at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. “They wanted me to go to Ferguson on the morning of Aug. 11th to photograph a planned protest in front of the police department there. I found out there was going to be a peace vigil the night of Aug. 10th. I thought I would go and, not even take any pictures, but get the lay of the land and the mood of people on the ground. I did end up taking pictures and that was the first night that things went from being peaceful to exploding
on the streets. From then on, for the most part, I was on assignment for The New York Times. I know for a fact that, here in St. Louis, since the Michael Brown shooting, there have been at least seven or eight other officer-involved shootings of African-American men. I think the events in Ferguson, Eric Garner’s death, and now Charleston are getting more attention and a lot of that has to do with social media. Americans, white and black, are tuned into what is happening in the African-American community.” The murder of nine congregants attending a prayer meeting on June 17 at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a church with a history that predates the civil rights era, brought the past into the present once more. Unlike the Brown, Garner, and Scott deaths, the motivation, this time, was indisputable. The perpetrator, a white supremacist named Dylann Roof, was targeting the church attendees specifically because of their race and chose a location noted for its role in promoting civil rights. At the time of this writing, another incident in Baltimore was unfolding when officers stormed a home in response to a domestic violence call and shot another unarmed African-American male. The Long Road couldn’t be more timely.
©Steve Schapiro: On the Road, Selma March, 1965; opposite page, top ©Whitney Curtis: Rashaad Davis, 23, Backs Away as St. Louis County Police Officers Approach Him With Guns Drawn and Eventually Arrest Him, Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 11, 2014; bottom, ©Steve Schapiro: “Stop Police Killings ,“Selma March, 1965; all photographs courtesy Monroe Gallery of Photography
From top to bottom, ©Charles Moore: Firemen Turn Fire Hoses on Demonstrators, Birmingham, Alabama, 1963; ©Whitney Curtis: James Ford Jr. Approaches St. Louis County Police to Question Them as to Why They Are Choosing to Block a Section of W. Florissant Ave. in Dellwood, Missouri, Aug. 17, 2014; Paul Schutzer/©Time Inc: Freedom Riders Julia Aaron & David Dennis Sitting on Board Interstate Bus as They and 25 Others Are Escorted by Two National Guardsmen Holding Bayonets, on Way From Montgomery, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi, May 1961
©Steve Schapiro: Watching the Selma March Enter Montgomery, Alabama, 1965