Representation Matters: Honoring “Women and the Civil Rights Movement”

Photo: Danny Lyon (American, b. 1942). Birmingham, Alabama, 1963. SNCC Workers Outside the Funeral: Emma Bell, Dorie Ladner, Dona Richards, Sam Shirah and Doris Derby, September 18, 1963. Gelatin silver print (photograph), printed 1999 Museum purchase, in memory of Alice R. and Sol B. Frank, and with funds provided by Patricia L. Raymond, M.D.

“Have you ever been hurt and the place tries to heal a bit, and you just pull the scar off of it over and over again,” Rosa Parks asked decades ago, reminding us that the fight for Civil Rights cuts through the flesh, down to the bone, and into the very marrow of the United States of America.

Also: “Black is Beautiful”: The Photographs That Started a Movement

Rosa Parks’s words are all too prescient this week, all too knowing of the agonies faced by citizens at the hands of the state, as the extrajudicial executions continue day after day after day. The horror of the killings is further compounded by their intimacy. Consider the murder of Philando Castile, livestreamed by his girlfriend Diamond Lavish Reynolds; in maintaining her composure and her calm in the face of a panicked officer of the law who killed without warning or provocation, Reynolds not only saved the life of her daughter and herself, but she risked everything to broadcast evidence of the crime to the world.

Ernest C. Withers (American, 1922−2007). Desegregation of Central High School by “Little Rock Nine,” Arkansas, 1957 Gelatin silver print (photograph), printed 1996 Museum purchase, in memory of Alice R. and Sol B. Frank

Reynolds’s actions remind us that although black women are rarely given the credit they deserve by the media, the history books, or core curriculum—they have always been at the heart of the movement. In tribute, the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA, presents Women and the Civil Rights Movement, on view now through October 30, 2016.

The exhibition includes more than 50 photographs by Danny Lyon, Builder Levy, Ernest C. Withers, Charles Moore, Bendict Fernandez, Charmian Sproule Reading, and Declaun Haun, among others, that show black women on the frontlines in the battle for human rights and freedom. Whether participating in peaceful protests or holding their own in violent confrontations, women never shied from putting their lives on the line to support the people.

Builder Levy (American, b. 1942), Annell Ponder, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Funeral, Atlanta, Georgia, 1968 Platinum print (photograph) on rag paper, printed 2014. Gift of the artist.

Representation matters, more than most are willing to admit, for if this were not the case, entire histories would not be rewritten or erased. Women and the Civil Rights Movement takes a vital and important step in highlighting the contributions of the mothers, daughters, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, and nieces who risked their lives in the pursuit of justice.

Looking at these images, it’s hard to know just how far we’ve come in fifty years. Some have suggested the only thing that has changed is that there are more cameras today then there were back then. It’s hard to know exactly what that means; photography has the power to influence minds and shape beliefs both for the better and for the worse.

Danny Lyon (American, b. 1942), Atlanta, Georgia, Winter 1963/64. Arrests During Mass Demonstrations Downtown, Winter, 1963−64 Gelatin silver print (photograph), printed 1999 Museum purchase, in memory of Alice R. and Sol B. Frank

But if history is any indication, perhaps a change will come. As Alex Mann, Brock Curator of American Art, observes, “Some of these pictures essentially went viral. This was one of the first times when photos changed history almost overnight. They shocked the world and changed hearts. Politicians couldn’t ignore them.”

Here’s to faith in the photographic image and its ability to capture the moment as it unfolds and to bear witness to the truth. Here’s to the black women who have put themselves in harm’s way to serve and protect the people from the powers that be.

Declan Haun (American, 1937−1994) Picketing the Courthouse, Monroe, North Carolina, August 26, 1961 Gelatin silver print (photograph) Museum purchase, in memory of Alice R. and Sol B. Frank, and with funds provided by Patricia L. Raymond, M.D.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.