To 21st century eyes, it is strange to think that it is only 50 years ago that the United States passed its two landmark bills, the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to ensure that, as had been written in the Constitution, all Americans – regardless of colour – had a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
Bob Adelman, the renowned photographer, started his career by being attached to the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and other civil rights organisations that enabled him to record the Civil Right Movement’s key events. As he says: “At that time, artists were very concerned with finding a subject and photographers were even more dependent on it. I thought this was something I could give myself over to. I went to the national CORE office and I presented myself. I guess I was a true believer…….In a profound sense what the Movement tried to do by direct action-sit-ins and other demonstrations was to reveal to the nation what segregation was: an organised, state-controlled system of terror. When people throughout the nation saw fire hoses, dogs or beatings, it didn’t seem like anything that was very American and many people were deeply offended. At one point Dr King cautioned a photographer who was trying to interfere with a demonstrator being beaten. King said “We have plenty of demonstrators, what we need are photographers”. So bearing witness was really a very literal thing.”
Martin Luther King and the civil right organisations understood the power of photography and of the news media to change the world. The Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale is showing an exhibition of 100 of Bob Adelman’s photographs from that struggle; powerful photographs that at the time had a powerful effect.
Events depicted in the photographs on display include the Freedom Rides; the 1963 Birmingham demonstrations at which the demonstrators were hosed and attacked by police dogs; the 1963 March on Washington, Martin Luther King’s inspirational and unscripted speech “I have a Dream”; voter registration drives; the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery March; and, most moving of all, Martin Luther King’s funeral.
Several hundred miles up the coast from Fort Lauderdale, the city of St Augustine has a long history of equality, going back before the United States of America was founded, from the time when the Spanish landed there with Africans playing important roles in the crews of the ships and as some of the earliest settlers. The Visitors & Convention Centre is holding an exhibition “Journey: 450 Years of the African- American Experience”. Exhibits include the first known birth certificate of an African-American child, born in St. Augustine in 1595 and a marriage certificate that documents the earliest known marriage between two African-Americans in St. Augustine in 1598. Also on display is the arrest record and fingerprint card for Martin Luther King, who was arrested during a peaceful protest in 1964; St Augustine is the only place in Florida where he was arrested.