A multimedia exhibition marking the fortieth anniversary of Freedom Summer and celebrating American voting rights and responsibilities. Including photographs by members of the Southern Documentary Project: Matt Herron, George Ballis, and David Prince.
The images in the Farm Security Administration–Office of War Information Collection (1935-1945) at the Library of Congress are among the most famous documentary photographs ever produced. Directed by Roy Emerson Stryker and created by a group of U.S. government–commissioned photographers, including Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, and Walker Evans, these images recorded aspects of American lives in every part of the nation. In the early years, the project emphasized rural life and the negative impact of the Great Depression, farm mechanization, and the Dust Bowl. For many Americans of later generations, these images epitomize the Depression.
Inspired by the work of the Farm Security Administration photographers, Matt Herron sought to create a similar record of the Civil Rights Movement, in which he was active. Though he was admonished by Lange that he might have a problem with objectivity, in the summer of 1964 he organized a team of eight photographers, called the Southern Documentary Project, in an attempt to record the rapid social change taking place in Mississippi and other parts of the South as civil rights organizations brought non-southern college students to work in voter registration and education. Many photographers were doing work in and around the movement at this time—some as independent documentarians, some as photojournalists on assignment for media organizations, some as part of their work for the movement. Danny Lyon, for example, who became part of the Southern Documentary Project, was the official photographer from 1962 to 1964 for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which helped to organize the action that came to be known as Freedom Summer. With varying degrees of success and with financial support from Life magazine and Black Star Photo Agency, Herron, Lyon, George Ballis, Dave Prince, and others created one of the more important bodies of documentary images from the Civil Rights era.
The Freedom Summer campaign of 1964, the climax of voter registration activities that started in the South three years earlier, targeted Mississippi, where black voter registration was the lowest in the country. Organized by a coalition called the Mississippi Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), which included SNCC as a primary partner as well as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the campaign also sought to organize a legally constituted Freedom Democratic Party that would challenge the whites-only Democratic Party in Mississippi; to establish “freedom schools” to teach reading, math, and African American history to black children; and to open community centers where indigent black Mississippians could obtain legal and medical assistance. Hundreds of out-of-state students, most of them white and many from well-to-do families, joined with local black residents in doing this work. Student volunteers were required to bring $500 for bail and money for living expenses, medical bills, and transportation home. They lived among local residents and were prepared for violence, and perhaps even death. Two of the white students, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, both from New York, and a local black worker, James Chaney, were murdered that summer, their badly beaten bodies undiscovered for six weeks. These events kept national attention focused on Freedom Summer, yet it was the masses of determined local people who put their bodies on the line, in order to change the conditions of their lives, who defined and perpetuated the struggle.
At the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the Freedom Democratic Party drew national attention to Freedom Summer efforts once more with its efforts to unseat the regular Democrats from Mississippi by demonstrating that black voters in the state had been systematically excluded from participation. The response of President Lyndon Johnson and national Democratic Party leaders, who were unsupportive of seating the full Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party contingent and worked to keep the appearance of party unity at the fore during the convention, marked a turning point in the black struggle.
In retrospect Freedom Summer was not just about voting rights and education. It was about young, middle-class Americans acknowledging their privilege and using it to fight for their fellow Americans’ rights to equal benefits of full citizenship, basic constitutional rights, and quality of life. It was about ordinary people standing up, speaking out against injustice, and risking everything to participate in their own governance. Democracy in action. Democracyis action.
Every election day, Americans have the opportunity to exercise on of their greatest privileges and responsibilities, the election of their leaders. Are we informed? Are we prepared? Are we all equally able to access these rights of citizenship?
Presented at Miami-Dade Public Library System, Main Branch, in Miama, Florida.
August 16–November 7, 2004
Juanita Kreps Gallery, Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina
February 2–May 28, 2006
Levine Museum of the New South, Charlotte, North Carolina
January 5–March 30, 2008
Miami-Dade Public Library System, Main Branch, Miami, Florida
Reception: January 10, 6–8:30 p.m.
October 1, 2008–November 15, 2008
The Bay County Public Library, Panama City, Florida
June 17–September 30, 2010
Herndon Gallery, Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio
"Library to host freedom exhibit." Panama City News Herald.September 27, 2008.
"Video Exclusive: Feedom Summer Exhibit." Panama City News Herald. October 20, 2008.
December 15, 2008–January 20, 2009
National Park Service, Brown V. Board of Education National Historic Site, Topeka, Kansas
February 28–May 9, 2009
Albert L. Lorenzo Cultural Center, Macomb Community College,Clinton Township, Michigan
January 4–March 27, 2010
Spady Cultural Heritage Museum, Delray Beach, Florida