West Baton Rouge Museum exhibits work of civil rights photographer
The girls look at you through the bars and broken glass.
“They couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15 years old,” says Lauren Davis, curator of the West Baton Rouge Museum. “They were just singing at a protest, and they were thrown into jail and forgotten.”
Davis has arranged for several civil rights-themed photography exhibits for the museum in recent years. But this one, “Danny Lyon: Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Era,” is different.
“Danny Lyon wasn’t a professional photographer at the time,” Davis says. “He was young, and had just graduated from the University of Chicago. He followed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to the South. He photographed what happened from within.”
The organization historically is known by its acronym, SNCC, pronounced “snik.” It was organized by Ella Baker at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., in 1960.
SNCC grew into a large organization through funding raised by supporters in the North. The organization traveled to the South, staging sit-ins, freedom rides and voter registration drives. It also played a major role in the 1963 March on Washington.
And Lyon photographed it all between 1962 and 1964.
Twin Palms Publishers compiled his images in the 2010 book, “Danny Lyon: Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Era.” The book is available for visitors to peruse in the exhibit.
The show, coordinated by Art2Art Circulating Exhibits, highlights photos from the book, but is only part of the exhibit. The other is the documentary, “The March,” looped on a small screen in the corner.
Usually, Davis localizes traveling exhibits by including timely West Baton Rouge Parish artifacts.
“This time, I thought the photographs should be the main focus,” she says. “They’re so strong, and I didn’t want anything to take away from them.”
Lyon’s photos are powerful not only in their documentation but in their foreshadowing of the roles these young activists would play in today’s political arena.
In the first group of photos is a young John Lewis. He kneels, leading activists and community members in prayer before protesting outside an all-white swimming pool in Cairo, Ill.
Lewis was a founding member of SNCC and an organizer of the freedom rides. These days, he represents Georgia’s Sixth District in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Other notable personalities captured include novelist James Baldwin and music icon Bob Dylan, strumming his guitar on the front steps leading into a Mississippi Delta house.
But they aren’t the stars of this show. Neither is Martin Luther King Jr. He’s pictured here, but he, like everyone else, is simply part of the civil rights landscape in Lyon’s story.
Everyone plays a part here, even the white southerners who turned out to mock the activists. Even the middle-aged white woman, captured in a photo near the end of the show, who was excoriated by her fellow townsmen for standing up for SNCC.
Lyon’s work played a part in changing photo documentation.
The museum’s label explains it best: “Danny Lyon helped define a mode of photojournalism in which the picture-maker is deeply and personally embedded in his subject matter … Lyon’s photographs are more than just a record of marches, jailings and protests. They take us inside the movement.”
Inside the meetings. Inside the marches. And inside the Leesburg County, Ga., stockade, where a group of black girls were jailed for demonstrating. Where they were forgotten for weeks, left to live with poor sanitation and little food and drinking water.
And then Lyon snapped his photo through the jail window.
The photo made the girls’ plight public and is now a permanent piece of America’s civil rights story.