In the summer of 1962, Congressman John Lewis was a 22-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The white American photographer Danny Lyon hitched a ride to Cairo, Illinois to hear Lewis address a demonstration about the disgraces of Jim Crow law. Lewis, dressed in dark dress pants and a white cotton dress shirt, dropped to a knee and bowed his head. The 20 year-old Lyon captured the scene of Lewis flanked by a woman and a child in deep prayer in a black and white photograph. A year later, Lyon joined SNCC as their first staff photographer, traveling through the South documenting sit-ins, demonstrations for voting rights, white violence, black spiritual resistance, and creating agitprop from his pictures.
In a new exhibition titled Danny Lyon at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, the artist is presenting pictures from his early 60s series, The Southern Civil Rights Movement. The images and stories behind them tell of how young black and white students banded together, despite their youth and racial differences, to challenge the status quo to combat racism. The mix of posters and photographs in the exhibition, document the way freedom was won by a gradual expression of non-violent protests despite the frequent use of violence by local police patrols and white vigilantees across the South.
Lyon’s earliest image is Eddie Brown is arrested in Albany, Georgia 1962, of the protestor being carried off to jail by two white cops. In Alabama Highway Patrol, Outside the Bombed 16th Street Baptist Church, September 12, 1963, four patrolmen stand on the street in the aftermath of the basement bombing of the Birmingham Church that killed four little girls. And there’s the Civil Rights photographer's pictures that show Taylor Washington being dragged by the neck from a lunch counter in Atlanta followed by a poster of a portrait of a patrol officer that asks: “Is He Protecting You?”
Despite the violence, the images reveal that the demonstrators kept marching toward the goal of freedom. There’s a printed sign titled Hear! How Our Brother Died For Freedom Flyer, that advertises a meeting at a local church to organize support to carry the fight for freedom in Mississippi.
Glimmers of hope persist in Lyon’s street shot of a white woman holding off a white mob in the streets of Atlanta in 1963. The March on Washington, August, 28, 1963, depicts a few men in a moment of applause, one of their hands raised high above the crowd, evoking the universal symbol of black power and resistance. That specific image was turned into a SNCC poster with the word “NOW” in bold black letters. That image said it all: Freedom had evaded a people for far too long and that moment in 1963 on the National Mall, where Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of his dream, was the time.
After Lyon joined SNCC in 1963, he met Julian Bond, then a 20-year-old student at the University of Chicago and the Communications Director of SNCC and future Legislator and leader of the NAACP. In a 2014 filmed reflection, the two men had a conversation about the Movement. The 30-minute piece, One Man One Vote: Danny Lyon in conversation with Julian Bond, explores Civils Rights from the 60s to today and provides commentary on contemporary questions of freedom and insight into the ways in which the young leaders galvanized to codify freedom for all.
Lyon asks Bond, “Do you remember meeting me?” Bond replies, “Vaguely. Some place in the Atlanta office. You came in. White people were always dropping in that office. Students wanting to work in the Movement and wanting to do something and I thought, ‘Here comes another guy like that.’” Lyon stayed and documented democracy in action. His images, at the time and now, illustrate a triumph of a people to overcome discrimination.
Danny Lyon continues through February 5 at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. Click here for more information.