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James Meyer.

The struggle for civil rights is the most iconic of 1960s stories, and the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, followed the next year by Rosa Parks's refusal to cede her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, are often cited as the era's inaugural events. Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement 1956-1968 (High Museum of Art), the catalogue for an extraordinary exhibition organized by Julian Cox, the curator of photography at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, is an important contribution to the visual record of the movement. Building on the research of Steven Kasher and other scholars, Cox located many of the still-living photographers, purchased their works, and wrote down their recollections. The trove of images he assembled encompasses some 250 priceless prints. Parks's arrest; the marches in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, and Washington, DC; the murders of the four girls in Birmingham and of the three civil rights workers in rural Mississippi; the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in a Memphis motel: These and other famous events feature here, often in images taken by freelance journalists. The story--of "ordinary people who acted on conscience and took terrible risks," in the words of civil rights leader James Lawson--has been told often. It amazes still.


Cox also recalls other, less well-known episodes, such as the May 1961 attack on a bus of Freedom Riders near Anniston, Alabama, a drab town--I have driven through it--at the foot of the Talladega Mountains. As Cox recounts, a bus transporting fourteen Freedom Riders on the highway between Atlanta and Birmingham was greeted by a mob of Klansmen. It was pursued to the highway and then firebombed. The choking passengers were beaten as they escaped from the burning vehicle; the local hospital refused them treatment. This gruesome affair was recorded in a sequence of gelatin-silver prints shot by the intrepid photojournalist Joseph Postiglione. These and other images of violence discussed by Cox provide a healthy antidote to '60s nostalgia, the tendency to view the era through the rose-tinted glasses of the miniseries and movie musical. As Lawson suggests, the heroic acts of the time often came at considerable personal cost.

Road to Freedom also reminds us that photographs were essential to the movement's success. Indeed, their transmission in the media led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In other words, these pictures not only recorded the events they depict; they were instrumental in inventing this history that they seem merely to record. Often consciously so: The famous photograph of Rosa Parks on the bus, we learn, is not in fact a documentation of her act of disobedience. The image was posed, a reconstruction of an event that had already occurred. (No wonder she sits alone. In the original incident, the bus driver, in order to seat an extra white passenger on the crowded bus, asked Parks to relinquish her "black" seat.) The future '60s--a '60s that haunts and defines the contemporary, that stands as a marker of where we have been and where we are now--was already embedded in these acts of representation.

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Title Annotation:Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement 1956-1968
Author:Meyer, James
Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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