Testimony to the Power
Reviewed by John Cole Vodicka
Vol. 16, No. 3, 1994, pp. 28-31
Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement, by Danny Lyon (University of North Carolina Press, Duke University Center for Documentary Studies, 1992, 192 pages).
There is a photograph in Danny Lyon’s book that disturbs and challenges me every time I look at it. It is one in a series of snapshots Lyon took through the barred windows of the Leesburg, Georgia stockade in the summer of 1963, his camera trained on a cellblock crammed with young African American girls who had been arrested by Americus police earlier in the day. The girls had been demonstrating and now were being held, all thirty-two of them, in a jail cell with no beds and no working sanitary facilities.
“The floor was cold,” thirteen year-old Henrietta Fuller wrote at the time. “You lay down for awhile and soon it starts hurting you so you sit up for awhile and it starts hurting so you have to walk around for awhile. The smell of waste material was bad. I went to the bathroom there to urinate, but didn’t have a bowel movement during the entire nine days I was there. I urinated where the water from the shower drains down.
“At night the mosquitoes and roaches were at us. In the middle of the week the white man gave us some blankets. Two or three of us slept on one blanket.”
The photograph of some of these young girls shows a dozen or more of them staring from their cell into Danny Lyon’s camera, which he held through the broken glass of a barred window. All of the girls are standing—that is, all but one. This one girl, who looks to be no more than ten or eleven years old, is sitting against the wall of the cell, her face almost hidden completely in the shadows.
But there she is, sitting and looking at the camera, at you and me, her face all at once young, innocent, determined, and frightened. She bravely waits—having encountered the white man’s wrath once again—for her
freedom, to be recognized as a human being. Her eyes tell you that she is now certain the cell door will soon be opened, that she and the other girls will be released from captivity. And with their freedom, she hopes, will eventually come the liberation of African Americans throughout the South.
Just days after this photograph was taken, it and others were placed in the hands of a U. S. Congressman, who, according to Danny Lyon, entered them into the Congressional Record. “Word quickly came back to Americus, and the girls, who were being held without charges, were released,” Lyon writes. “In Americus, my pictures had actually accomplished something. They had gotten people out of jail.”
Danny Lyon’s photographs of the civil rights movement are now chronicled in an important and inspiring book, Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement. The photographs were all taken between 1962 and 1964, when Danny Lyon was one of several “movement photographers” for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Lyon’s photographs, all in black-and-white, and an accompanying text that includes his narrative as well as notes taken at SNCC meetings, affidavits, and transcribed interviews, present many of the events and images of the civil rights struggle that are largely unfamiliar to all but those who participated in the movement. As Julian Bond writes in his foreword to the book: “[Lyon] saw and recorded the movement: the people who made it, those who would maim and kill to stop it, and those who watched—respectfully, resentfully, or angrily—as it passed by. Dusty roads were the movement’s most likely location, not Capitol malls and monuments. We all remember fire hoses and police dogs. Danny Lyon makes us remember the people and the forgotten places, too.”
Danny Lyon was a twenty-year-old University of Chicago history student in 1962, when he packed his cameras in an army bag and hitchhiked south. Arriving in Atlanta, he hoped to find SNCC headquarters, but learned that the occupants of the now-empty office were in Albany. So he boarded a bus to make the 150-mile journey into southwest Georgia.
“Near me,” Lyon writes, “was another standing passenger, a very smartly dressed man with glasses and a goatee. He said if I was going to try to reach the SNCC people, I ought to do it in the daylight and not at night. Police, in and out of uniform, stood around the parking lot as the bus pulled into Albany. As soon as I stepped off the bus, I was pulled aside by a plainclothesman. ‘Where you going?’ I was asked. ‘That’s the white part of town,’ he said and pointed, ‘and that’s the nigger part of town.’ Wyatt T. Walker, the gentleman I had been speaking with, walked off in one direction and I went off in the other. In the morning I walked over to the black side of town to find the Albany movement.”
Wyatt T. Walker, an SCLC leader and organizer, is one of the many familiar faces Lyon captured on film. Others include James Forman, John Lewis, June Johnson, Bernice Reagon, Charles Sherrod, Ella Baker, Bob Moses, Julian Bond, Martin King, Jr., Bob Zellner, Fannie Lou Hamer—all recognized heroes whose immense courage both inspired movement participants and encouraged bystanders, in the North and the South, to get involved.
But Danny Lyon’s photographs also give us the faces of hundreds of others who are unknown to most of us, and it is these pictures that make Memories of the Southern Civil Right Movement the powerful historical document it is.
Lyon and his camera are there to capture the crowds of African Americans who lined the Birmingham streets along the funeral route for the four girls killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. In the faces of the mourners we can see not only the grieving, but also the angry determination to push on for justice.
Lyon’s photographs show us teenage demonstrators in Savannah lying on the sidewalk, waiting to be arrested. In one of these, a white man, neatly dressed, stands almost
nonchalantly within a few feet of where African American demonstrators are being carried by police into waiting paddy wagons. Who is this white bystander, hands in pockets, looking on as dozens of youngsters are claiming their right to full citizenship?
There is a series of photographs of the mass meetings held in Danville, Virginia. One shows hundreds of people standing outside a cinderblock church, the crowd so large it has spilled out into the yard. Lyon tells us that during this meeting, word came that the police and a tank were waiting up the road. Hearing this, the meeting broke up, with two carloads of SNCC workers the last to leave the church. The SNCC cars were stopped by heavily armed police, Lyon writes, and the passengers were told to get out. The entire SNCC staff was forced to spreadeagle and allow themselves to be patted down.
“That night,” writes Lyon, “arrest warrants were issued for twenty-two SNCC workers under a state law originally passed after Nat Turner’s rebellion and used to hang John Brown: ‘Inciting the colored population to acts of war and violence against the white population.’ I believe at that time the crime was punishable by death.”
In another image later in his book, the driver of a vehicle is attacking a demonstrator who is blocking traffic on a downtown Atlanta street. Again, there they are—white bystanders looking on approvingly while a black man is choked and beaten only yards from where they watch. What are these white folk thinking?
Again in Atlanta, Lyon’s camera is somehow up close in the middle of a demonstration blocking traffic to protest unfair hiring practices. A mob has begun to abuse the demonstrators with kicks, blows, and burning cigarettes. But this time the photograph shows a white woman who has walked by and confronted the mob, and for awhile,
has held them at bay. Lyon writes: “When someone (from the white mob) yells, ‘If you feel that way, why don’t you marry one of them?’ (the woman) sits down and joins the demonstrators.”
The photographs in Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement are certain to stir deep feelings, whether the viewer lived through the tumultuous 1960s or not. As Julian Bond writes, Lyon’s photos “capture the heat and excitement and despair of those two hopeful years. “These pictures, taken three decades ago, serve as reminders not only of our segregated past and the human courage it took to bring Jim Crow to its knees, but also heighten our awareness of just how far we still need to go to overcome the barriers of racism. When I look at that photograph of the young girl in the Leesburg stockade, I am made to realize that although the cell door opened for her in 1962, she is still not free in 1994. This snapshot challenges me in the here-and-now.
Danny Lyon’s sensitive and inspiring book invites us not only to remember this piece of our past, but to call up from within the same rage that moved so many back then to action. It is testimony to the power of grassroots movements. It looks back but at the same time prods us forward. It is a book that, as Lyon writes of SNCC, “is a model for any [one] that wants to turn America into what it could be, but is not.”
John Cole Vodicka directs the Koinonia Prison and Jail Project in Americus, Georgia.