More than Black and White: Activist Photography in “This Light of Ours”

by Liz Allen
Friday + Saturday Editor

 You shouldn’t expect a  feel-good trip through the Mississippi Museum of Art’s when you visit the newest travelling exhibition of activist photography from the Civil Rights Era, “This Light of Ours.” The exhibit has more than its fair share of photographs that capture beauty and inspire hope: pictures of people holding hands and raising voices together, images of courage and strength. But it does not gloss over the violence of the era, the irony and the illogic. Hope is accompanied by heart-wrenching, stomach-twisting shock and pain.

            The exhibit, organized by the Center for Documentary Expression and Art, features 157 images captured by nine different activist photographers who experienced and recorded the Civil Rights movement throughout the South between 1960 and 1965. These turbulent years include iconic historical events like Freedom Summer, the James Meredith March, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers’ stent at the University of Miss.

However, the show also does something new: it focuses on everyday people and events. It looks at  the grassroots organizations, such as Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Mississippi Freedom Party (MFP) and more that pushed for change in daily life. It puts faces and reality to history, and provides new insights. Certain names and faces are familiar, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and his family,,Bob Moses and James Meredith, but they also featuremany of the less often featured heroes and icons. The show especially highlights the role of women in the movement, such as Ida Mae Holland and Fannie Lou Hamer, to many of the photographers, who were themselves women, such as Maria Varela.

A quote from George Ballis, one of the featured photographers, says “My goal was to celebrate the power of these people and amplify it with my camera.” And this exhibit continues in this voice-giving tradition. Scenes of violence are present, but overwhelmingly the exhibit features images of solidarity. So any times were pictures taken with mouths open, People holding hands, mouths open, and you can hear the songs, traversing time, as if the film imprinted not just the negative of light and space, but of sound too.

The exhibit is a timely one, as this summer marks the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer. More than that though the show is full of ample local history that illuminates how far we’ve come, and the work still to go.

            The exhibit opened March 7 and will run through August 17. The cost is $10 for adults, $8 or seniors, and $5 for students. The museum also offers free admission for students on Tuesdays and Thursdays. For more information, click here.  The museum, located at 380 South Lamar Street, is open Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.

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