‘Mississippi Eyes’ Offers a Cultural History of Civil Rights

The Rev. Percy Gordon conducting a Sunday service. The congregation was able to afford him only once a month. (Matt Herron)
The Rev. Percy Gordon conducting a Sunday service. The congregation was able to afford him only once a month. (Matt Herron)

Two men sit inside a rural Mississippi community center. One of them, a black civil rights activist, has a shotgun at the ready. Their vigil — in a town where the Ku Klux Klan could strike at any moment — is in a makeshift library whose walls are covered with books.

This compelling photograph, taken during the historic 1964 Freedom Summer, is a reminder of the multiple and sometimes conflicting tactics of the civil rights movement. It is also a hopeful metaphor for the power of knowledge to combat prejudice and oppression.

With this idea in mind, thousands of volunteers, many of them college students from the North, descended on Mississippi in June 1964. Their purpose was to work with local activists to register African-American voters in a state that often denied them that right. To address the racial inequalities in Mississippi’s education system, they set up 30 Freedom Schools in small towns, as well as meeting houses and community centers.

Matt Herron had relocated from the North to Jackson, Miss., with his wife, Jeannine, and two small children a year earlier to work as a freelance photojournalist, pitching stories to Life, Look and The Saturday Evening Post, and to participate in the movement. He assembled a group of photographers — the Southern Documentary Project, he called it — to document the Freedom Summer. Although often overlooked by historians, the project is the subject of an insightful new book by Mr. Herron, “Mississippi Eyes: The Story and Photography of the Southern Documentary Project” (Talking Fingers Publications).

While the era’s documentary photography was dominated by images that provoked shock, anger or defiance, the project told a different story. Concentrating on educational and artistic activities, it reminds us that the civil rights movement was as much cultural as sociological.

The project’s other photographers included George Ballis, Nick Lawrence, Danny Lyon, Norris McNamara and David Prince. Fred DeVan was its sole black participant. It was financed with $10,000 raised by Howard Chapnick, director of the Black Star photo agency. Mr. Herron was also able to secure the cooperation of the photography unit of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Atlanta, where his wife organized the darkroom that developed and printed film for the two groups.

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Source: New York Times | MAURICE BERGER

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