Civil rights photographer shares life experiences with Mt. Zion Christian Academy

BY Frank Drouzas, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG –Civil Rights Movement photographer Robert Fletcher talked about his art and life with students from Mt. Zion Christian Academy in the tunnel that runs under First Avenue and empties into Tropicana Field parking lot on Sept. 11.

It was part of the Florida Holocaust Museum’s storytelling series “Light at the End of the Tunnel,” a program in partnership with artist Ya La’ford. As part of the SHINE Mural Festival, La’ford painted the tunnel with geometric designs representing sunrays, and renamed it the “Sunnel.”

Fletcher, who has been taking photographs for most of his life, talked about how he first felt drawn toward the art of photography. When on a trip to New Mexico as a boy scout, he took a camera because the landscape was so different in Detroit where he was from.

“The whole idea of the camera when I started taking pictures was to get things that I could take back and show people. I couldn’t tell them, but I could show them.”

He added that his father supplied some of the inspiration, too. “My father could draw like crazy, he was a real artist,” Fletcher told the children. “And I thought maybe I can do what he does with a camera. And so I tried it and that’s what started me taking pictures to begin with.”

Later, while an undergraduate at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., he became seriously interested in photography when he read a running discussion published in a magazine about photography as a true art form, which featured the work of visionaries Edward Weston, Margaret Bourke-White and Gordon Parks, among others.

Fletcher’s photos include many series that run the gamut from themes of urban solitude in New York to rural life in Mississippi. One striking photo in his subway series depicts a lone young girl riding the train in New York City, ostensibly lost in her own world.

“I saw this little girl sitting there,” Fletcher said. “This little girl was sitting and I thought she was thinking about lots of things, and I just wanted to try to capture a little girl in thought.”

He explained that the girl’s parents may have been nearby, but that particular picture was all about her and her solitude.

“You know how you guys sometimes feel like you want to be by yourself, even when you’re with your parents, you just want to go off,” he asked the students.

Children are prominent subjects of Fletcher’s photos, whether they are featured climbing trees or squatting outside shacks in his Mississippi series or being bathed by their mothers in Zaire, where Fletcher visited in 1974 as one of the cameramen shooting a music documentary centered on the famous Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight.

His work has covered many watershed events in the civil rights era, including the demonstrations in and around Selma, Ala., leading up to “Bloody Sunday” where he worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. while in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organization. He also documented activist Stokely Carmichael’s arrest during the massive 1966 March Against Fear, a march from Memphis to Jackson, Miss.

Not afraid to put himself directly in the front lines when capturing a moment in history, Fletcher was arrested for attempting to photograph a picket line demonstration in Harlem in the 1960s and spent the night in the Tombs, New York’s infamous holding facility. He admitted that more than once he’s had to endure “scary moments,” like in Mississippi when he was taunted by racists after he had photographed the sheriff knocking a woman down in Selma, Ala.

Decades later, when Barack Obama was elected president, Fletcher said it was to him a sort of culmination of everything that people had done and worked for—even died for—to make happen.

“When he became president, I couldn’t help but cry,” he admitted. “Finally it happened in my lifetime, which I never expected it would.”

What advice would he pass on to children today that he wished someone had given him when he was a youngster?

“To keep my eyes open,” he said simply. “That’s one of the things that being a photographer helped me do. To look around, to actually see what’s going on around me. And not only look and see, but once I’m able to see, to think about what I’m seeing and really analyze what’s going on. That’s the most important thing that anybody can do. All of us need to keep an eye on what’s going on around us. Keep an eye on our friends—are they happy, are they sad? What’s going on with them?  And then ask oneself, what can I do to help?”

Elizabeth Gelman, Director of the Florida Holocaust Museum, said it was imperative to give kids a sense of history, adding that the Civil Rights Movement—like the Holocaust—was not merely a moment in time.

“We’re still in the Civil Rights Movement,” she pointed out. “We still have so much work to do in our own country and to recognize the people that came before us.”

Gelman said that it isn’t only the great leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks who brought about change, but the people around them that made things happen.

“It’s why the civil rights show that we have right now, ‘This Light of Ours,’ and why Bob Fletcher’s pictures resonate with us,” Gelman noted. “These aren’t photojournalists who came to only photograph the most important people. These were people that came down because they believed in the movement.”

Debra West, a first and second grade reading teacher at Mt. Zion, said that La’ford was instrumental in getting the Mt. Zion students to come to the museum and the tunnel to learn more about their history.

“She invited us because she thought these young minds need to be made aware and become more knowledgeable on where they come from and their past,” West asserted.

La’ford believes Fletcher is a “hero” and felt he needed to be recognized by a generation that’s never too young to learn about its past.

“To me, it’s all about these kids thinking about what’s next,” she averred. “Knowing about their history in order to move to a better and more progressive future.”

Brian Auld, President of the Tampa Bay Rays also showed up to the tunnel to give all the students tickets to catch a game at the Trop.

To see Fletcher’s work in person, you can visit the Florida Holocaust Museum, 55 5th St. S, St. Pete, where his photos taken during the Civil Rights Era are displayed in the exhibition entitled “This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement.” You can also log onto his website bobfletcher.photoshelter.com

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