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Photographers Showcase: "Freedom's Cause"

Today we welcome MIchael David Murphy to NCN.  Michael is a writer and photographer based in Atlanta, GA.  We featured one of his photographs earlier in the year under our “Sight Gag” category, but here we ask you to consider one of his photo-textual studies called “Freedom’s Cause” inspired by Barack Obama’s stump speech.  The photographs below are a side project of Michael’s presidential campaign project “So Help Me …

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Barack Obama’s candidacy for President contains a direct link to the successes of the Civil Rights movement. While campaigning, Obama often referred to the movement’s successes and struggles:

“That’s how women won the right to vote, how workers won the right to organize, how young people like you traveled down South to march, and sit-in, and go to jail, and some were beaten, and some died for freedom’s cause. That’s what hope is.” (02/12/2008, Madison, WI)

While photographing the primaries across the Southern states, I visited locations where the echoes of the Civil Rights struggle can still be heared — places that have nearly gone quiet during the more than forty years in between. History doesn’t just happen, it goes down, and as a photographer, witnessing what our country chooses to commemerate, and what we all collectively and selectively choose to forget, can be instructive. These three locations, each in Mississippi, may be views of America’s troubled past, but when seen through the lens of Obama’s candidacy, they telescope forward toward an optimistic future.

On August 27th, 1955, a few months after the murder of Rev. George Lee, fourteen year old Emmitt Till walked into Bryant’s Store in Money, Mississippi. 

There are conflicting stories about what happened when Till left the store, but he apparently said something (or whistled) at the store owner’s wife, Carolyn Bryant. Later that night, Till was kidnapped from his great uncle’s house, and taken to a shed where he was beaten, then shot, then dropped into the Tallahatchie River with a fan tied to his neck. 

When Till’s body was recovered, Till’s mother insisted on having an open casket funeral in Chicago, and encouraged photographs of Till’s disfigured body, which were published in Jet. Nearly 100,000 people saw Till’s body during a four-day public viewing. 

in 1957, Bryant’s Store closed due to lack of business. In August, 2007, a Mississippi historical marker showing the location of the killing was stolen. 

On May 7th, 1955, Rev. George Washington Lee, the first black person to register to vote since reconstruction in Humphreys County, Mississippi, was driving down Church St. in Belzoni, a small town in the Delta. Rev. Lee was well-known in the area for his voter initiatives, successfully registering blacks to vote. 

As he drove down Church St., Rev. Lee was tailed by men in a convertible. Someone shot out his right rear tire, at which point another car pulled alongside, and Rev. Lee was fatally shot, point-blank in the face. Rev. Lee’s Buick hopped a curb and slammed into a house, and the Reverend died on the way to Humphreys County Memorial Hospital. 

There were witnesses who saw the fatal shot, but couldn’t identify the killers. The FBI investigated, discovered enough evidence to take the case to trial, but the local prosecutor declined, saying a Humphreys County grand jury “probably would not bring an indictment.” There seemed to be consensus in Belzoni as to who the killers were, but they were never prosecuted. In death, Rev. Lee’s actions helped usher the passage of the Voting Rights Act ten years later, in 1965. 

Belzoni is a quiet town in the Mississippi delta. It’s catfish country, and they even have their own Catfish Museum and Catfish Festival. It’s the kind of place where you can stand in the middle of the road under a darkcloth to make a photograph and no one will pay you any mind. 

This is Country Road #515 in Mississippi. It was called “Rock Cut Road” back in 1964. 

On June 21st, 1964, three civil rights workers were booked into the Neshoba County Jail after being arrested for speeding through Philadelphia, Mississippi. The three (James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman) had driven to Longdale earlier that day to see the remains of a church that had been firebombed by the KKK. The firebombing was apparently targeting Schwerner, who had plans to turn the church into a “Freedom School”. Freedom Schools where established during Freedom Summer in the South by a coalition of CORE, SNCC & the NAACP. 

The three were released at 10:30 that night and told to leave the county. Just before reaching the county line, their car was overtaken by a group of men that included law enforcement. Their station wagon was forced over to the side of the road. The three were pulled from their vehicle and taken to “Rock Cut Road”, where they were beaten and shot. 

The killings raised national attention to the Civil Rights struggle in the South. Robert Kennedy got the FBI involved (because Mississippi law enforcement was so slow to respond), and their remains were found a month later. No one has been convicted for their murder, but in 2005, Edgar Ray Killen was convicted for manslaughter for his role in recruiting the mob that was involved with the killings. 

Through the efforts of volunteer workers (often from out of state, Schwerner and Goodman, who were both from New York), over 100,000 new black voters were registered in Mississippi in two years, and the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965.

 

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Photographers Showcase: "Freedom's Cause"

Discussion

5 Responses

  1. Tom White says

    Curiously, I was just thinking about the silent history of places and how they take on new significance once you learn of the events that happened in the past. Each of these images changes considerably once you read the text.

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