I AM A MAN: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1960–1970 displays a wide range of photographs taken by amateurs, local photojournalists, and internationally known photographers. Together, they provide a vivid visual story of the evolution of the civil rights movement and shed light on the movement’s integration in the daily living in the American South.
Inspired by the voice of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., thousands of courageous people risked their lives to end Jim Crow segregation, and photographs were made in the midst of often-dangerous confrontations. The exhibition takes its name, “I AM A MAN” from the slogan of the sanitation workers’ strike Martin Luther King, Jr., was supposed to lead the day after he was assassinated fifty years ago. Dr. King and other civil rights leaders relied on the power of photographs to persuade and to motivate change during the civil rights movement.
Southern folklorist, author, and curator William Ferris and his research team sought out photos taken in the heat of the civil rights movement, by activists or local news photographers, who documented history taking place before their eyes. Viewers of the exhibition will recognize the photographs of protestors who carried signs with messages like “I Am A Man” or sat at segregated lunch counters as iconic images associated with the movement, while numerous other photographs presented in the exhibition have rarely been seen until now. Key events include James Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi, Ku Klux Klan gatherings, the Selma Montgomery March in Alabama, the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Martin Luther King’s funeral, the Poor People’s Campaign, and the Mule Train.
Within the history of photography, images of the civil rights movement mark a special body of work. Like the fabled music and narratives of the American South, photographs bear witness to the region’s past, to its people, and to the places that shaped their lives. The photographs featured in the exhibition are vessels of truth—truth about the courage of protestors who faced unimaginable violence and brutality with the quiet determination of elders and the angry commitment of the young. Even though the photographs were taken fifty years ago, they remain relevant today. They remind us of the brave sacrifices that were made to secure the enforcement of civil rights for African Americans.
The decade was a pivotal moment that both marks change, and also reminds us how far we have to go. The photographs in I Am A Man: Civil Rights Photographs in the American South, 1960–1970 remind us of their enduring resonance today and beyond as future generations continue to fight for justice for all humankind.
This exhibition has been adapted from an exhibition of the same title, originally produced for the Pavillon Populaire in Montpellier, France, by the Center for Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The French exhibition was funded by the City of Montpellier and administered by Gilles Mora, director of the Pavillion Populaire.