As with most national holidays, Martin Luther King Day is divorced from its subject, just like Presidents Day (which president?) or Memorial Day (memorializing what, exactly?).
So, what is Martin Luther King Day? King was part of the civil-rights movement, gave a speech called “I Have a Dream” and was assassinated. But, of course, there is more. King was key to one of the most momentous times in American history.
Today, most Utahns would respond with blank stares if you mentioned Selma, Ala., or the Black Panthers. But there’s a place in Salt Lake City where memories of that time, of that totally different reality, hit like a punch in the stomach.
It’s an exhibit at the Leonardo titled This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement. On display are 156 black-and-white images by nine photographers who lived in Southern black areas during the 1960s. The images document the slow birth and growth of a movement among people who were slaves a mere century before. Even more compelling than the images are the photo captions and descriptions by the photographers themselves.
The first large photo is of a hard-faced white woman in a dress, handbag on her arm, holding up a poster that says, “Nigger, don’t you wish you were white?”
Black poverty was more extreme in the American South than in many Third World countries. Segregation was the law in most Southern states, and it was enforced with unimaginable violence. Blacks who challenged white supremacy were often beaten or lynched. Public drinking fountains and restrooms came in pairs, with signs—one saying “colored,” one saying “white.”
The civil-rights movement gained momentum in February of 1960, when four black students in Greensboro, N.C., refused to leave a lunch counter after being denied service. Sit-ins became a form of protest that quickly spread throughout the South. Blacks boycotting white-owned businesses also proved a powerful tool for the movement.
On one Leonardo wall, three photographs depict the changing times. The top photo shows the smoldering remains of a home. White firefighters, as they often did, arrived too late to save the house. The middle photo is of a black man holding up a sign that says, “Downtown will need us before we will need downtown.” Nearby is a shot of black women holding up a sign that says, “Strike! Don’t work for less than $1.25 an hour.”
Exhibit curator and photographer Matt Herron says, “I knew this was a historic change, and I was always aware I was photographing history.”
The biggest battle became voter registration. There were different rules for blacks and whites. One photo shows a sign at a black-voter-registration site that reads, “NOTICE, applications for registration must be completely filled out without any assistance or suggestions of any person or memorandum. After 10 days, applicants’ names and addresses are published for two consecutive weeks in the newspaper. They cannot be ruled on until 14 days after the second publication. Therefore, it can take as long as 63 days before we can give you an answer as to your application being accepted or rejected.” There were few schools in the South that blacks were allowed to attend, so many Southern blacks were illiterate and few had money for newspapers.
Whites who came from Northern states to help the voter-registration movement were attacked. One photo shows an Ohio rabbi, his shirt drenched in blood and his eyes dazed. He had been hit on the head with a tire iron. But even three civil-rights workers who were murdered didn’t deter out-of-state whites from continuing to fight racism.
In another image, a woman stands in her small cabin wearing a faded dress and a proud expression. She is quoted saying, “Martin Luther King got us to the place where we wasn’t afraid. We needed someone to stand for us who wasn’t afraid.”
Selma, Ala., witnessed three pivotal and historic protest marches. The first, on March 7, 1965, drew fewer than 600 protesters. They were stopped at a bridge at the edge of town by a thick line of state troopers who beat them with nightsticks and rode over them with horses. Seventeen people were injured seriously enough to be hospitalized. But this time, television crews were there to record it. The police violence was nicknamed “Bloody Sunday.” When it was televised to horrified Americans, the civil-rights movement became big news. People from all over the country came to Selma, including King.
Two days later, on March 9, King led a second march, this time with about 2,500 people. By March 21, nearly 8,000 people had gathered in Selma to begin the 50-mile walk to Montgomery, the Alabama capital. On March 25, 25,000 protesters arrived at the steps of the capitol.
On Aug. 6 of that year, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It banned racial discrimination in voter registration, and authorized federal oversight of elections in states where discrimination had been a problem. It was the beginning of the end of legally allowed racism.
Forty-seven years later, John Mazur of Ogden stood in front of a wall of photos at Salt Lake City’s Leonardo, his 3-year-old daughter Sasha perched on his shoulder. He said to her, “You know there are black people, don’t you? There are yellow people and red people and brown people. They’re all people.”
“Uh-huh,” Sasha said, nodding vigorously. “Yes.”