Brooks Museum Exhibit Offers Fresh Perspective on Civil Rights Movement

See this historical era through the eyes and photographs of activists

By Sally Walker Davies,

The Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis explores the Civil Rights Movement through the work and voices of nine photographers who, unlike the journalists covering the events of that era, were actually living out the day-to-day events and struggles as activists.

This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement exhibits the work of the photographers who documented the efforts of activists and citizens in the towns across the South touched by the national struggle against segregation. The exhibit will run in Memphis through early May 2015.

A mourner grieves at a memorial service for civil rights workers Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, James Earl Chaney and Andrew Goodman — Photo courtesy of David Prince - Neshoba County, Mississippi, 1964

The exhibition documents 157 black-and-white images by photographers Bob Adelman, George Ballis, Bob Fitch, Bob Fletcher, Matt Herron, David Prince, Herbert Randall, Maria Varela and Tamio Wakayama. The images were taken primarily in the South, between 1963 and 1968 by the nine, who were working primarily with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Organized by the Center for Documentary Expression and Art in Salt Lake City, Utah, and curated by Matt Herron, one of the contributing photographers, the exhibition’s name was inspired by “This Little Light of Mine,” a children’s gospel song that was written by composer and teacher Harry Dixon Loes around 1920. The song became a civil rights anthem during the 1950s and '60s.

The exhibition highlights the efforts of unsung heroes within the movement, capturing the day-to-day struggles of everyday citizens working to register voters, hold workshops and march for civil rights.

Through programming, the Brooks Museum will make connections between the efforts of citizen activists in the mid-20th century and those working today.

On-the-spot meetings were common. In this photo, (left to right) Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth; Bernard Lee; Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and Hosea Williams confer during a rally in Kelly Ingram Park — Photo courtesy of Bob Fitch - Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Alabama, 1965

This Light of Ours is one in a long line of exhibitions at the Brooks relating to photography, and more specifically to works by and about African Americans,” says Marina Pacini, chief curator and curator of American, modern and contemporary art at the Brooks Museum. “We are so excited because it offers a unique insider perspective that captures the deeply moving relationships between the photographers and their subjects. It’s an extremely timely exhibition.”

The Brooks Museum of Art will host several events during the exhibition that offer unique opportunities to experience the photographs, including a free community day, film screenings, guided tours, talks and an interactive space within the exhibition.

A partnership with the National Civil Rights Museum, located in Downtown Memphis only four-and-a-half miles from the Brooks, will include a loan exhibition of photographs from the Brooks Museum’s permanent collection. Set to run concurrently with This Light of Ours, this exhibition will include works by famed Memphis photographer Ernest Withers.

This Light of Ours opens at the Brooks Museum of Art on Saturday, Feb. 14, and ends Sunday, May 10, 2015.

After the Ku Klux Klan burned this cross in front of a Mississippi Delta Freedom House, a civil rights worker transformed it with a painted message — Photo courtesy of Tamio Wakayama - Indianola, Mississippi, 1964