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When Cotton Was King

Memory32

Photographs serve many purposes, not least witnessing and memory. Here we have a photograph of a cotton field in the Mississippi Delta near the town of Money. But what is being witnessed or remembered?

You probably have never heard of Money, Mississippi, but you probably have heard of Emmett Till. An African American born in Chicago, he visited relatives in Money at the age of fourteen during the summer of 1955. While there he allegedly “flirted” with a married woman—a white, married woman—in a local grocery store. And for that “crime” he was stripped, beaten and shot in the head, his face mutilated beyond all recognition, and his bodied tied to a cotton-gin fan and deposited in the Tallahatchie River. Till’s mother insisted on an open casket funeral and the now famous photograph of the disfigured Emmett Till appeared first in Jet magazine before being picked up by the mainstream media. The two perpetrators—Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam—were found “not-guilty” by an all white jury who deliberated for less than an hour in a segregated courthouse in nearby Sumner, Mississippi.

One might imagine that a contemporary photographer seeking to memorialize the lynching of Emmett Till might photograph the dilapidated grocery store—or its historical marker—where Till violated the rigid codes of the Jim Crow South, or perhaps the spot on the river where Till’s body was eventually discovered. Or maybe even the Sumner, Mississippi courthouse. Instead, Andrew Lichtenstein chose to photograph a nearby cotton field.

It is hard to know if the sun is rising or setting here, but whether you imagine that the camera is facing east or west there is no question that cotton is cast within a metaphorical timescape. The sun is either setting on cotton and hence a reminder that by the 1950s the economy that relied upon it was in full decline, or the sun is rising on it, and a reminder of the new day soon to be be ushered in by the nascent Civil Rights Movement. In either case, the photograph of a cotton field in Money, Mississippi is a poignant testament to the fact that while Bryant and Milam lynched Till and tied his body to a rusted cotton-gin fan, it was truly cotton—and the economic and social order that it animated—that killed him.

Andrew Lichtenstein, Forgotten Moments

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What Does Injustice Look Like?

Birmingham_campaign_dogs

This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama.  By many accounts it was the tipping point in generating national public support for the civil rights movement, and much of that effect is often attributed to the national news reports that showed Birmingham police officers using attack dogs and fire hoses on nonviolent protestors. Chief among the most famous of those images is Bill Hudson’s photograph of high school student Bill Gadsden being attacked by a police dog.  It appeared the next day, May 4th, above the fold in the New York Times and has been reprinted perhaps more than any other image affiliated with the civil rights movement.  The photograph was memorialized in a statue in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park in 1993, fixing the meaning of the civil rights movement as a response to repressive state action.

There is much that could be said about this photograph, but perhaps most important is the way in which it puts the relationship between dominance and acquiescence on public display. Prior to the Boycott in Birmingham one could find photographs that visualized the ways in which white citizens sought to enforce the codes of social and racial hierarchy through verbal and physical intimidation, the most prominent example being the photograph of Hazel Barnes “barking” at Elizabeth Eckrich in the streets of Little Rock.  But typically such images located the agency of such control in the hands of civil society, i.e., ordinary citizens.  Here the agents of action are duly authorized police officers armed with guns and in control of highly trained attack dogs.  And of course that marks a huge difference.  Indeed, it should be of little surprise to anyone that the scene above, cast in the full light of day and executed by officers of the state, was characterized as a “legal lynching.”

To see the image through the haze of memory and framed by the contemporary consensus that state sponsored racial segregation was a profound injustice destined to be eliminated by a truly egalitarian society is in some ways to dull the effective, functional power of the image at its point of production and dissemination–however powerful it remains today.  But imagine seeing the photograph in 1963 and in the context of reports made by the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” O’Connor, that the protestors were a serious threat to public security.

The young man in the photograph does not appear to be a threat to anybody.  Note in particular his somewhat passive stance.  Despite being viciously attacked by a police dog his right hand rests at his side, while his left hand is on the police officers arm in a manner that seems either to be steadying himself or pushing the police officer away.  We might imagine a much more defensive or even aggressive stance in response to such an attack, but here we have an almost textbook example of nonviolent resistance.

The lack of threat is manifest in other features of the image.  Notice, in particular the countenance of the two police officers.   One seems to be pulling the youth into the dog’s maw, not so much trying to subdue him as to hold him still while the dog attacks.  The other police officer, with a handgun prominently displayed in its holster, heels his dog while he observes the scene before him.  One might imagine that if the black youth were truly a threat, so much so as to warrant the use of a dog to attack him, that the second police officer would be more directly and actively engaged.  Surely he would have his dog assisting in subduing the suspect, or that he would have pulled his gun.  But nothing of the like happens.  And the reason is manifest, for the action in the center of the screen is not about public safety.  Rather it is a public spectacle put on display for the enjoyment of the second police officer (and who he represents) and for the intimidation of the black citizens in the background.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. was challenged by reticent and fearful black religious leaders in Birmingham with the question, why are you here, he responded, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”  Injustice can be a difficult concept to put into words, but once made palpably visible it is difficult to ignore. Sometimes we have to look closely to see it for what it is, sometimes it is there simply waiting to be seen.

Photo Credit:  Bill Hudson/AP

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Public Witnesses to an Execution

Public hanging

There is something that is both ironic and perversely democratic about this photograph.  The location is Tehran Square in Iran and the people on the other side of the barricade are witnesses to a public hanging.   Many are photographing the event, some appear to be looking in anger or in anticipation, others reveal expressions of pain and grief or simply cannot look at all.  But all are public spectators to a state sponsored execution.

To understand the irony and the perversion you have to remember that there has not been a public execution in the United States since the hanging of Rainey Bethea in Owensboro, KY in 1936, despite the fact that there have been 1,320 state sponsored executions between 1976 and 2013. The irony, of course, is that Iran is run by an autocratic dictatorship while the U.S. is an open democracy, but at least in this instance the former, it would seem, is far more open and transparent than the later.  Iran’s motivation is hardly democratic inasmuch as the purpose for the public spectacle is to serve as a brutal warning rather than to inculcate the legitimacy of its actions, and hence it is in this sense a perversion of democracy, but there is also something compelling about the idea that if the state is going to exact such punishments that the public—and not just a hand full of journalists—ought to stand in witness to the action.  We don’t endorse the death penalty at NCN, but the larger point here is that it seems fundamentally undemocratic to engage in such an extreme form of punishment outside of the public eye and apart from the full participation of the people.

If we think of the above photograph in cinematic terms as the “shot,” then this second photograph might function as the “reverse shot” or what the spectators are viewing.

Reverse Shot2013-01-27 at 10.04.34 PM

In Barbie Zelizer’s terms, we might call it an “about to die” shot.  But what makes it important for our purposes is how it captures the complexity of emotions that the spectacle of a public execution can put on display.  What is particularly telling is how even the hoods designed to conceal the identity—and not incidentally the affective responses—of the executioners are ultimately incapable of masking what can only be a moment of human compassion as the hangman on the left comforts one of the individuals about to meet his fate.  And one can only wonder if the reason we don’t have public executions in the United States is because we are afraid of letting the public witness the brutality of the punishment, or alternately, is it because we don’t want them to witness the displays of ambivalence of those responsible for performing their charge as executioners?

Photo Credit: Ebrahim Noroozi/Fars/AP; Amir Pourmand/Iranian Studewnts News Agency/AP

 

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Strange Fruit in California

So what do you see in this photograph?  Look closely and carefully.  The tree is knotted and gnarled, its branches reaching out like so many arms, going this way and that, almost as if it were a human being thrashing about in a hostile world.  At first blush it reminded me of the tree in The Wizard of Oz that throws its apples at Dorothy and her troupe.  Then again, it looked like might be from a more recent movie, perhaps one of the episodes of The Lord of the Rings or maybe even the fantasy world of Harry Potter.  But whatever you think you might see, look closely and ask yourself: What is missing?

The photograph was once the scene of a brutal lynching. Lynchings are a part of American history, and as James Allen helped us to understand a few year back with his Without Sanctuary project, they were not simply events that took place in the dead of night and away from the public eye.  Indeed, lynchings  were often carefully planned activities—spectacles really—with the trains adjusting their schedules so that church goers could attend the “festivities” and numerous photographs taken to mark the occasion, many of the later converted into postcards to be sent to friends and family.

Lynchings of this sort no longer take place in the U.S. and so it is all too easy to locate such events in a distant past, a time we might imagine as long, long ago. And perhaps that is so inasmuch as such lynchings have been exceedingly rare since the early 1950s. But the problem with such consignment to a once malignant but now benign past is that it invites us to ignore the depths and ignominy of such behaviors.  Most, no doubt, think of lynching as an activity used by southern whites to discipline blacks in the reconstruction and Jim Crow eras.  That it was, but we should not forget that such lynchings also occurred in many places north of the Mason-Dixon line (one of the most famous took place close to where I write from in Marion, Indiana) and as Ken Gonzales-Day, has recently demonstrated, several hundreds of Latinos, Native Americans, and Asians suffered a similar fate in California between 1850 and 1932.

And so, back to the photograph above.  It is one in a series of photographs taken by Gonzales-Day called Searching for California’s Hang Trees and is part of his attempt to witness an aspect of our national past that it has been all too easy to erase from our public and collective memory (see also his Erased Lynching series)—both geographically and otherwise.  The “strange fruit” that Billie Holiday sung about is nowhere to be found in these photographs, but that would seem to be the point. The tree could really be anywhere: north, south, east or west. And those tortured while hanging from its branches could have been men, women and children of many different ethnicities and colors. It is not a part of our past of which we can be proud, but it is a part of our past and it needs to be remembered.  And visualized.  So, once again, what do you see when you look at the photograph?

Photo Credit: Ken Gonzales-Day

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How Does One Survive a Moral Virus?

The above photograph was taken while we were on a brief hiatus but I figured there would be plenty of time to write about it once we returned after the Thanksgiving Holiday.  Little did I imagine that it would go viral, become a meme, and basically disappear from attention in a period of ten days.

One of the things that we’ve learned in writing this blog for the past three years is that the news cycle can be brutal.  Blink and it has moved on to something more immediately interesting, as if our attention span is incapable of pondering the rightness and wrongness of human behavior for more than the time it takes to click through a slideshow.  But one would hope that genuine acts of unrepentant moral turpitude would not be cast aside so easily or so quickly.  Maybe it is because the image of Mary Anne Vecchio wailing in distress at the murder of Jeffrey Miller at a different student protest in the 1970s is so seared in my consciousness that I find the photograph of Officer Pike assaulting students who are the very image of nonviolent rectitude to be so appalling. I taste bile in my mouth every time I look at the image, even now, ten days after first seeing it.

Others have commented on how casual Office Pike appears as he sprays the students, and the point is all the more pronounced in the various U-tube videos that provide live documentation of the event.  Indeed, he looks rather like the weekend gardener in ads I’ve seen selling weed spray, killing the chickweed that has infested his otherwise perfectly green lawn as if it doing so makes him a good neighbor by maintaining property values.  It is no doubt in large measure that sense of nonchalance that has animated the “Officer Pike” meme that became the basis for literally hundreds of appropriations that show the pepper spraying of everything from cuddly kittens to the founding fathers, as well as inserting him into virtually everyone of the major iconic photographs of 20th century U.S. public culture, such as the flag being raised at Iwo Jima, the Times Square Kiss, accidental napalm, the Tiananmen Square tank man, and the photograph of Mary Anne Vecchio at Kent State.

One could go on at some length to analyze these many appropriations, though their production in such a compressed time period, coupled with how quickly they seem to have become irrelevant, makes it difficult to know quite what to make of it all.  There is outrage being expressed at Officer Pike’s nonchalance, to be sure, but also equally heavy doses of adolescent irreverence and cynicism that might lead one to think that the response in general is as much a conditioned, knee jerk reaction as anything at all.

But there is an additional point to be made and one that seems to have been missed by the many commentators and appropriators of the Officer Pike meme.  What makes the scene captured here so morally outrageous is not just that the behavior of the police officer is casual, but that it lacks any moral concern at all, despite the fact that it is being witnessed by hundreds of photographers and videographers.  It is one think to behave casually in ways that might be morally questionable, it is something altogether different to do so in the full light of day and with the knowledge that the world is watching.  Indeed, if anything Officer Pike’s behavior is marked by a conceit that reminds me of the photograph of a lynching that took place in Marian, Indiana in the 1930s where the townspeople are smiling for the camera as they direct attention to the hanging black bodies in the background.  Lacking any sense of shame for the scene in which they found themselves, they pointed with pride to what their community had “accomplished.” The officers in the photograph above—and here I mean to call attention to all of the officers—know that they are being photographed and yet they proceed as if there could be no question but that it is appropriate to shoot pepper spray into the faces of citizens sitting on the ground and posing a threat to no one.  It is, in short, an image of moral hubris that should be anathema to a liberal-democratic public culture that relies for its life blood on civil (and civilized) dissent.

And yet for all that, we seem to have moved on, the viral video little more than one of the millions of u–tube videos that seem to serve the contemporary role of bread and circuses, the Officer Pike meme  an online joke that is on the verge of becoming a trivia question.  And the moral outrage that should haunt us all is lost to the news cycle.

Photo Credit: Louise Macabitis

 

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Photographer's Showcase: A (Southern) Civil Rights Memorial

Till, Store

We are pleased to introduce NCN readers to Jessica Ingram‘s “A Civil Rights Memorial,” a photographic exploration of the ways in which important moments in the struggle for civil rights in the American south are remembered—or perhaps more to the point, the ways in which such events risk being  forgotten as they fade into the landscape of time or are otherwise awkwardly remembered as part of the local context in which they occurred.  The above photograph  is the contemporary, unmarked site of of the store in Money, Mississippi where in 1955  Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago, was accused of whistling at a white woman, an event that led to him being beaten, shot, and dumped in the Tallahatchie River. To see the exhibit click here.

We first encountered Ingram’s work at the Visura Magazine Spotlight—a site designed to support emerging artists and students. It is a web resource that we strongly encourage NCN readers to visit.

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