Three Annalists of the Movement for Civil Rights
by Debra Martin Chase
Black Art and the Civil Rights Movement: Challenge to the Mainstream. Julia Ideson Building, The Houston Public Library, April 4 - 30 1985.
The 1960s was the decade of the individual. The lone voice provoked the political imagination of the common man, demanded that listeners cast aside passivity, and shattered many established societal institutions. Millions of men and women believed that the mountains of injustice which obstructed their paths to fulfillment could be leveled by the sheer strength of their personal commitment and tenacity.
The Black civil rights movement was, in its essence, a collective of individuals steeped in such beliefs. We are poignantly reminded of this by the photographic exhibit Black Art and the Civil Rights Movement: Challenge to the Mainstream, which was part of After the Avant Garde: A City-Wide Symposium, sponsored by the University of Houston.
Challenge to the Mainstream features the work of three distinguished Black American photographers: Doug Harris, Roy Lewis, and Jack Harris.
Doug Harris began his career with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which arranged for him a six-month apprenticeship with Richard Avedon. Roy Lewis, a recent recipient of a Visual Arts Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, was a staff photographer for Jet and Ebony magazines.
Jack Harris, a photographer and cinematographer, has worked as a freelance for Black Enterprise, Ebony, and Time magazines and is currently the director of the Langston Hughes Cultural Center of the Queensborough Public Library in New York City.
Exhibit coordinator and poet Lorenzo Thomas offers the viewer a telling glimpse of many of the individuals, both famous and not, who comprised the movement. In “Word Warrior,” Lewis starkly captures the haughty intelligence edged by tempered practicality of Gwendolyn Brooks. “We Want Black Power” catches the quintessential Stokely Carmichael of SNCC straining at the confines of the podium, entranced by his own revolutionary ideals, high eyes concealed behind jet black sunglasses.
Jack Harris brings the late New York Congressman, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., momentarily back to life. Surrounded by the press microphones that besieged his flamboyant career, we can feel him deftly maneuver around the piercing questions about his politics and personal affairs.
All three photographers offer the viewer moments of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life: on courthouse steps, entreating the crowd to persevere with dignity and pride, one can almost hear his rich baritone; leading the march on Jackson, Mississippi, while unflinching meeting the challenge of the hot Southern sun; and relaxing in a church with the joy of serenity shining from his eyes.
These photographs remind us that he was a ubiquitous force in this social and political metamorphosis.
Challenge to the Mainstream is a small fistful of powerful images, a tribute to the progenitors and perpetuators of the Black civil rights movement.