WHEN HE WAS 11 years old, a book of photographs forever changed Dawoud Bey‘s perspective in terms of his vulnerability as a black child. His parents purchased the book in 1964 after hearing James Baldwin speak at their church in Queens, N.Y. The event was part of a tour organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). At the conclusion of Baldwin’s talk, “The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality,”a volume about the Civil Rights Movement with text written by Lorraine Hansberry, was sold to raise money for SNCC.
Among the images in the book was a photograph of Sarah Jean Collins, 12. Her sister, Addie Mae Collins, 14, was one of the four girls killed in the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., on Sept. 15, 1963, 55 years ago today. The congregation’s children were planning for an annual Youth Day program when a bomb set by the Ku Klux Klan went off in the stairwell of the church. Among the 17 injured, Sarah survived the blast, but lost her right eye. The photograph is a tight shot of her lying in the hospital, nestled under bed covers with burns on her face, her lips swollen, and gauze bandages covering her eyes.
“There were a number of horrific photographs in that book. There were lynching photographs in that book and other photographs that I think visualized all of the things up until that moment that my parents had tried to protect me from,” Bey said.
“When I saw this photograph [of Sarah Jean Collins], this photograph seared itself, seared its way into my pysche. I don’t know if I entirely intuited at that moment that I was pretty much the same age as the girl that I was looking at. The visceral response may very well have been related to that, but I never forgot this photograph, and I very often describe my life as my life before this photograph and my life after this photograph. It was that dramatic and traumatic an experience, seeing this photograph.”
SOURCE: VICTORIA L. VALENTINE