Activist photographers of the Civil Rights Movement

BY CINDY CARTER, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – Before you send your children back to school, take them down to The Florida Holocaust Museum, located at 55 5th St. S, to receive a history lesson on the Civil Rights Movement through photographs.

Entitled “This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement,” this exhibition comprised of 157 black and white photographs were taken in Mississippi and Alabama from 1963 to 1966.

Raymond Arsenault is a professor of southern history and the program advisor of the Florida Studies program at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg. A specialist in political, social and environmental history in the South, his studies have taken him all over the country.

During a trip to Salt Lake City, Arsenault discovered a jewel in the making. “This Light of Ours” was just starting out and had plans to become a traveling exhibition. Through photographs of the era, it depicts the Africa-American freedom struggle through the visions and voices of nine men and women who lived and worked in the South from 1963-1968.

In 2012, the exhibit took to the road as part of a national tour and after fruitlessly attempting to find a location to house it here in St. Petersburg, Arsenault finally found a home for the photographs representing the work of Bob Adelman, George Ballis, Bob Fitch, Bob Fletcher, Matt Herron, David Prince, Herbert Randall, Maria Varela and Tamio Wakayama.

“I came to the holocaust museum and right from the start they were so enthusiastic,” he said. His excitement was evident and the importance of the moment in bringing this program to St. Petersburg and highlighting the significance of the civil rights era was not lost on the crowd.

Last Sat., Aug. 1, three of the nine photographers were in attendance at the opening reception to give a little background on their time spent photographing the social injustice endured by African Americans exercising their rights as citizens.

“You’re in for a real treat tonight,” said Arsenault who comes from a long line of photographers and has a high regard for the art. He knows the dedication and skill needed to capture a moment in time that tells a story for years to come.

Robert Adelman turned to activism when he witnessed the student sit-ins. He photographed them and later worked for the Congress of Racial Equality photographing other efforts to desegregate restaurants and bus terminals.

“Segregation was a strategy that the South used to terrify our brothers and sisters who had gotten to vote,” said Adelman who showed some of his photos on display via a PowerPoint presentation. Guests viewed many of his photographs, such as a voting registration in Alabama from 1966 in a town some 30 miles south of Selma, Ala. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been there organizing the vote. “The Civil Rights Movement was the last battle of the civil war.”

Tamio Wakayama, an activist photographer from Canada, talked about his own struggle with racism growing up Japanese Canadian during WWII. “We share a similar history,” he said delighted to have his images displayed on the walls of the museum.

Wakayama spent part of his childhood in an internment camp due to anti-Japanese sentiment that heightened after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Approximately 23,000 Canadians of Japanese descent were sent to camps. After the camps were closed down families were not allowed to return to their homes. Their possessions had been sold. “The proceeds were used to pay for our incarceration, what a neat trick,” he said.

Wakayama, along with Robert Fletcher, the third activist photographer who spoke at the exhibit, worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which was established in 1960. Fletcher who spends a good part of his year in Clearwater is originally from Detroit. After spending a night in jail for getting into an argument with police, Fletcher decided he wanted to do something with meaning. So he headed south and became part of the movement by joining the Freedom Riders.

“I’d never been in the South like that,” he said about his initial feeling of arriving in Alabama and Mississippi. “I felt the effects of being a black person in the South, it really wasn’t very comfortable.”

Those at the talk were able to view the “This Light of Ours” exhibit and purchase a picture book by the same name full of history. “Your coffee table will never be the same if you buy this,” said Arsenault.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, this exhibit is worth a college course in history. Don’t let the summer end without taking your children to The Florida Holocaust Museum to explore our history and embark on the journey that the nine activist photographers lived through.

It will be on display through Dec. 1.  You can also pick up a membership, which provides a year’s free admission to the museum along with a number of other museums and attractions in the area.

6 Replies to “Activist photographers of the Civil Rights Movement”

  1. Already purchased tickets

  2. Funny, Jews honor the civil rights movement but I haven’t heard one black person ever speak of the atrocities of the Holocaust.

  3. Well, maybe you need to talk to more blacks. You want to witness the camaraderie, go to the Vintage African American Photography.

  4. beaause if we forget…….

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