With haunting eyes that silently speak the loud truth of the injustice of the 1960s staring into the camera lens of photographer Declan Haun, Genora Covington stood outside the Union County Courthouse in Monroe, N.C., clutching a sign to her chest that had a solitary word: “JUSTICE.”
This photo is part of a collection of female activists during the Great Depression and into the late 80s put together by Alex Mann, the Joan and Macon Brock Curator of American Art for the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk. The 50 photographs were taken by photographers including Ernest Withers, Builder Levy, Benedict J. Fernandez, Danny Lyon.
The photographs featured in the exhibit depict emotions that spread through the country during that time. There were photographs from riots in which the police, covered in heavy gear, are beating black men and women who protested. Others show white people stepping in to end the violence.
One photo in particular is of the back of a police car. Through the bars in the door viewers can see two or three African American individuals dancing around as though they have not just been arrested for protesting against the ways they were being treated. Within the jail car, protestors were singing, clapping and dancing to show any who saw the car that being arrested would not shake their fight for justice.
As one enters the exhibit, there is a strong sense of pain and suffering; the air sits heavily as Martin Luther King Jr. and Annell Ponder stare into the lenses of the cameramen who came before them. Despite difficult times, there still is laughter in the photographs: a black woman serves soda pop to young black men, a huge grin on her face; King sits around a table with his wife, kids and a couple of activists for lunch, the ringing laughter of a joke just spoken among the group forever present in the smiles on their faces.
So much emotion lingers in the atmosphere of the photographs and the gray walls that accompany them. It is as though many people have glided through, reminiscing in the heartache of an era long past, as they leave their own touch in the very room in which the suffering and loss and joy of those alive in the time of segregation have been documented and compiled together in an exhibition of melancholy.
As exhibit visitors leave the room, they are invited to write a comment in a small book standing on a white podium. The pen lays above the lined paper in silent anticipation of someone to share with the world what it is that the room and the photographs brought into their hearts. One visitor shared their story of being the last baby in Virginia to be born on a slave plantation.
There’s no name next to the note in which the writer says they are “native by blood, caucasian by complexion, and a child of Christ by adoption."
Further on, the person proclaims in single, choppy sentences that sit one atop the other: “I’m not black. I’m not white. I’m not privileged. I’m not poor. — I’m FREE!”
Photographs: (in order of appearance) Declan Haun, Danny Lyon, Benedict J. Fernandez