Recently a photo of a young woman in a sundress standing before several military uniformed officers in Baton Rouge has gone viral and sparked conversations. In many ways the photo appears to be just another photo of a protest; however, we often dismiss the importance of such imagery to the civil rights movement.
Photography and the Movement
One of the most significant moments of the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s was the inclusion of numerous photographs that were published in news articles and the footage that aired on news programs. So important was this visual imagery that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. allowed himself to be the subject of and even deployed campaigns of photography around movement events. These images were a significant part of Project C, which was a plan created by Dr. King and other civil rights leaders to “confront” racism and discrimination through marches, sit-ins and the like. They intended for these demonstrations to receive media coverage and through that expose the brutality of what was happening to Black people in America.
One of the most notable pioneers of the efforts to use imagery to make an impact on the civil rights movement was Gordon Parks. In an interview in 1999 Parks said,
I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs.
– Gordon Parks
The power of using visual images to evoke emotions and illustrate the truth of the struggle was imperative to its gaining support form people who were not directly affected by it. It helped to force the mainstream public to face the horrors that were happening.
In every image there is a story being told in the eyes of the subjects and frozen in time is an unflinching glimpse at that story that will forever remind the world of what happened.
Iesha Evans, a 35 year old nurse and mother, went to Baton Rouge to protest the murder of Alton Sterling. While protesting there she was told by officers not to walk in the street and when she continued to do so they confronted her and that moment is what was caught on camera. The photo shows Evans looking earthy and serene in a sundress standing calmly before 3 military uniformed officers. The image is the perfect illustration of the contrast between Civil Rights protestors and the immediate aggression that we have seen law enforcement take.
In an interview with Gayle King, Evans states that she hadn’t thought of herself as an activist before she was arrested in Louisiana. All she knew was that when the previous media covered murders of Black lives at the hands of police officers occurred, she had chosen to go to work and “pay bills” but when she saw the coverage of the Alton Sterling murder she felt compelled to take the opportunity to take part in the demonstrations and that is why the photo captures her approaching the officers when she noticed one of them adjust his weapon
I needed to see them. I needed to see their faces. – We don’t have to beg to matter…we do matter.
– Iesha Evans
It is poignant to note that the Black Lives Matter movement, as part of the Civil Rights Movement, has learned to use the systems and institutions that are meant to oppress us to help liberate us. Media has become a cornerstone of American culture and through manipulation and perversion has often been used to create narratives around the issues and people who are not in the majority. The current Civil Rights Movement – as did Dr. King and those before – are using imagery in art, traditional and social media in order to give voice to the struggle; in order to keep the narrative honest.
This not only informs those who are ignorant of the struggle or have limited understanding of the struggle but it also inspires those who would be part of the struggle. Those who think that their voice doesn’t count or that their participation doesn’t make a difference. Like Iesha Evans, many who are faced with these images of faces that look like theirs or someone they love cannot help but to feel inspired and convicted. As well they should because you don’t have to be an activist; you don’t have to be political; nor do you have to be socially conscious to be a part of the struggle. Every person in this country is part of the struggle and every person in this country has an obligation to support and stand up for the founding principles of this country: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Just because a person hasn’t felt the pain of discrimination firsthand or hasn’t lost someone to senseless acts of racial violences, doesn’t mean that this is not their problem. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Once we, as American citizens, begin to allow systems, institutions, organizations and individuals to have the power to rob one citizen of their rights on the basis of prejudice and bigotry, it won’t be long before some group that person finds themselves a part of some group that is next. That thought alone should be enough to inspire and convict individuals to take a stand in whatever way they are able.
I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,
An Angry Black Man