Civil Rights in Columbia

October 10, 2013

Columbia exhibitions offer window to the civil rights movement

Two October exhibitions offer evocative, and distinctively different, examinations of the civil rights movement in Columbia, one primarily seen through the camera lens and the other in the tangible artifacts of the period.

Two October exhibitions offer evocative, and distinctively different, examinations of the civil rights movement in Columbia, one primarily seen through the camera lens and the other in the tangible artifacts of the period.

Both exhibits attempt to place the city against the larger backdrop of American life in the 1960s, particularly in the South, and offer spectators a window to a now vanished part of South Carolina life.

“50 Years Forward,” which opens Friday at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, is a traveling exhibit that began in Birmingham, Ala., and is making the rounds of six Southern cities. Mayor Steve Benjamin will open the exhibition at 1 p.m. with a news conference.

The exhibition’s Alabama roots show in the crisp Birmingham police jacket and helmet on display as well as a reproduction of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and footage from the aftermath of the September 1963 bombing of that city’s 16th Street Baptist Church.

But Columbia curators also have worked to show Columbia’s place in the civil rights movement, with photographs and footage demonstrating its role in the larger Southern movement. Columbia is part of a seven-city commemoration that focuses on pivotal events of 1963.

“It has been an exciting ride,” said Kim Jamieson, director of communications for the Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports & Tourism. She said part of the aim of ColumbiaSC 63 is to circulate photographs and other memorabilia to identify participants and jog the memories of those who were there. The exhibition runs through Oct. 30.

Among the display boxes, there is a worn red lunch counter stool from the S.H. Kress & Co. five-and-dime store. Dime stores along Main Street were the front line for black college students protesting the refusal of businesses to serve them while they were seated. Several Supreme Court decisions emerged out of arrests made in Columbia, as students from Allen and Benedict colleges marched by the hundreds to protest segregation in public facilities

At the University of South Carolina’s McKissick Museum, an even more expansive visual exhibition showcases the work of South Carolina photographers who made it their business to be on the front lines of the burgeoning movement.

“Defying the Quiet: Photography of the Civil Rights Movement in South Carolina” runs Oct. 18 through Jan. 17, 2014 and features work by two prominent photographers, Cecil Williams of Orangeburg, and the late David Wallace of Columbia, as well as news photographers from The State and The Columbia Record who were capturing the movement for the daily newspaper.

The 90 photographs, blown up to 20”-by-30” size, are complemented by the placement of eight vintage televisions around McKissick’s North Gallery that feature video clips from the era.

Hearing Gov. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings admonish “hot-headed students” to cease their activities or risk arrest, or listening as the late Malcolm X exhort a black audience to stand up to the authority of the white establishment because “democracy means hypocrisy,” provides a wide-open window to a tumultuous time.

Curator Ned Puchner said the elements in the exhibition are meant to convey to spectators both immediacy and a sense of history.

“There are photographs that are taken to tell a newspaper story and then there are photographs that weren’t used,” and resided in archives for many years, Puchner said. “Those photographs that weren’t used tell a different story.”

He hopes the exhibition will illuminate “the role of photography as it shapes a narrative, and how that narrative becomes history.”

Puchner, who joined McKissick last year, brings fresh eyes to the exhibition’s elements. A New Jersey native who earned his Ph.D. at Indiana University, Puchner said he has focused on the use of photography and film during the civil rights period, particularly how it is used by newspaper photographers who aimed for objectivity and movement leaders who wanted to use the media to convey their point of view.

USC African-American history professor Bobby Donaldson, who is consultant to the ColumbiaSC 63 project, is working with him on the exhibition.

Williams’ photographs, particularly of the Orangeburg Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, are well known through his books,. including “Freedom and Justice” and “Out of the Box in Dixie.” From the 1940s onward, Williams seemed to be everywhere as a news chronicler of the marches and protests that defined the movement, and his photographs express the sense of determination that protesters brought to their cause. He made sure the leaders of the movement were photographed at key moments along the path to integration.

Wallace’s photographs offer a different perspective. The late Columbia real estate broker and community leader, who died in 2011, often captured the individual humanity of the lunch counter protesters as he focused on their faces and the range of emotions they experienced, from stoicism to fear to an easy camaraderie.

Puchner said the photographers were also cognizant of representing in their photographs both the protesters and the police who confronted or arrested them.

“They felt an obligation to their audience not to show any bias,” he said. “Here we have everyone: protesters and the authority figures.” The bystanders in the photographs, with their mix of scorn, sympathy and puzzlement, also provide an element of visual intrigue, he said.

Williams, the Orangeburg photographer, will talk about that period of his life when the museum hosts a public reception and gallery book talk on Oct. 22, 5:30-7:30 p.m.

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