(All photos courtesy of Bob Adelman)
I finally made it out to the Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale this week to check out “The Movement,” the exhibition of Civil Rights Era photography from the acclaimed photojournalist (and Miami Beach resident) Bob Adelman. It was well worth the wait: “The Movement” tells an indispensable story of a minority group transcending government-sanctioned suppression through unity and cooperation, from the Freedom Rides and the battle for suffrage to the Marches on Washington and Montgomery and the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. Wherever this tussle for equality was being fought, Adelman chronicled it as the movement’s ubiquitous shadow. And this exhibition’s clear, crisp, deep-focused, mostly black-and-white images speak volumes about our shameful history.
The photographs selected to open the exhibition paint a picture of black life in the Jim Crow south, setting the scene for the civil rights advances to come. In “Peyton Buford Jr. and Tenant Farmers,” a smiling white landowner in a pressed shirt and slacks stands before his African-American labor, who till his land; it was taken in 1966, but looks a lot like a plantation in the mid-1800s. In “Three Generations of Tenant Farmers,” a family stands behind a decrepit house that seems to crumble the more you look at it. And in “Unemployed Young Men, Harlem,” the looks of desperation and longing in the three men’s eyes are almost too much to bear; they seem to bore right into Adelman’s soul.
It would be hard to take much more of this, but soon Adelman introduces us to Dr. King, and we’re swept up in images of his effusive oratory and powerful body language … and then, we’re transported to his funeral, with inspiration bleeding into heartache. “The Movement” continues to ebb and flow in this way; Adelman shot the triumphs as well as the setbacks, and the result is an emotional seesaw mirroring the staggered, bloody progress of the civil rights movement. In my favorite pair of images, “Wall of Troopers and Possemen, Selma,” with its close-up shot of troopers’ hands holding nightsticks, is cleverly positioned above “Protestors’ Linked Hands,” which shows just that—white and black hands linked in a chain. In both cases, the hands alone speak for the objectives of each side; violence and disruption versus love and unity.
Among this nation-changing tumult, the photographer sometimes managed to discover humor, albeit of a cynical, sarcastic stripe, and usually achieved through his titles. Most of his images are given matter-of-fact names—“Bayard Rustin Being Refused Service,” for instance—but occasionally he’ll create pointed commentary with his titles. An image of a vanity license plate “It’s Nice to Have You in Birmingham” is titled, by Adelman, “Southern Hospitality,” an ironic reference to Alabama’s regressive segregation. An anger-inducing shot of louche Caucasians burning crosses and waving confederate flags is titled “White Knights Defend Their White Castle as Picketers Outside Demand Fair Employment Practices, Bronx.”
But the most powerful images on display cannot be leavened by humor. Adelman captured Joseph Carter, the first African-American who successfully registered to vote in West Feliciana Parish of Louisiana, clutching a shotgun on his front porch, on the evening of his registration. A feeling of lurking danger pervades this cinematically lit image, its hero a shadow figure against a moonlit backdrop. Carter’s expectation of confrontation was demonstrably justified, making this an iconic image of American defiance.
In another key image, titled “Unified Resistance, Kelly Ingram Park,” the local firemen of this Alabama park follow their orders to hose down protestors, who have banded together in their discovery that strength in numbers lessens the impact of the hose. The oppression and the resistance of the entire movement is captured within this single shot. Adelman had a lot of single shots like that; the era he chronicled may have been a wrong place and a wrong time, but within this upheaval, he was always in the right place and right time to immortalize the fight.
“The Movement” continues through May 17 at Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Admission costs $10 adults, $7 seniors and military, and $5 students. Call 954/525-5500 or visit moafl.org.