1956. I was 2 years old. And Jim Crow was still strong in Alabama, and the rest of the South. It happened in my life time. I wonder what my children will say this about in 40 years.
I was too young to remember the early civil rights movement ... I remember Kennedy being shot in 1963. But my parents were not active politically (dad was in the Navy, commissioned in 1963 it turns out) and except for family visits in Kansas as we crossed the country between duty stations, we lived in Navy housing, on Navy bases up through about 1968, with an exception in San Diego and in the Maryland suburbs of Washington.
This striking set of photographs, by Gordon Parks, is published in the New York Times Lens column today. A Radically Prosaic Approach to Civil Rights Images, by Maurice Berger. A selection of these were published in Life Magazine in September 1956, one month before my birthday. 56 years later, I saw them.
It makes so visible the lives so many others experienced. It struck home today, as I just last night, and for the first time, watched "The Help", which is set in Jackson, MS in 1963.
These photographs so visibly present the lives of those living under Jim Crow, living their lives as normally as they could ... and living lives just like the ones we lived.
Yet, as effectively as any civil rights photograph, the portrait was a forceful “weapon of choice,” as Mr. Parks would say, in the struggle against racism and segregation.A weapon of choice ... to show that we were not different people, that we did not live differently from choice, and yet people like us lived under conditions and pressures I could not even imagine. As the writer says:
"most of the images are optimistic and affirmative, like the portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Thornton. They focus on the family’s everyday activities, and their resolve to get on with their lives as normally as possible, in spite of an environment that restricts and intimidates""And, until television news brought the civil rights movement to all of America in the 1960s, it was a hidden world, one in which we could make assumptions and state claims about how others lived.
More than anything, the “Segregation Series” challenged the abiding myth of racism: that the races are innately unequal, a delusion that allows one group to declare its superiority over another by capriciously ascribing to it negative traits, abnormalities or pathologies. It is the very fullness, even ordinariness, of the lives of the Thornton family that most effectively contests these notions of difference, which had flourished in a popular culture that offered no more than an incomplete or distorted view of African-American life."The question that I have in my mind right now is "Of what will my children speak when they say 'It happened in my life time.'"