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Professor O’Brien: Photographs Bear Witness to the Fight for Civil Rights in the American South

Assistant Professor of media studies and film studies Michaela O’Brien served as the Associate Curator and Archival Researcher for the exhibit “I Am a Man” – Civil Rights Photographs in the American South 1960-1970. While featuring photographers with national renown, it pays special attention to little-known, regional and African American photographers. The exhibit also includes moving image and ephemeral content. The images illuminate the power of the Movement in everyday life in the South. As relevant today as they were when taken five decades ago, these photographs are reminders of the courageous sacrifices made to secure civil rights for black Americans. O’Brien shares her insight an experience with the exhibit.

Why is this an important exhibit and conversation?

Doris Derby stands in front of some of her exhibition photographs

 Although the content of this exhibit is about 50 years old or more, it is all extremely relevant today. The evolution of the Civil Rights Movement is not over. The campaign for equal rights in America has been and continues to be witnessed through photographs. Simply by looking we can easily link the past with the present. We remember through image, and in viewing our past, activate our ethical positions and civic duties in the present.

Our hope is that the exhibit inspires deep political reflection, recalls a period of upheaval and tragedy and celebrates the significance of everyday sacrifices by ordinary people to secure Civil Rights for African Americans and transform the nation. Images of violence, brutality and substandard living conditions challenge us not to forget the courage, commitment and determination of previous generations. It was a momentous time that brought us hope and change, and it is a momentous time that reminds us of the work that is left.

Mary D. Williams performs “Uncovering the Music of the Civil Rights Movement Through Song” at the Memories of the Civil Rights Movement Symposium.

The honored presence of Civil Rights Movement icon, James Meredith, and Civil Rights Movement photographer, Doris Derby, at the well-attended exhibition opening and symposium reminded all visitors and participants of a living history and of the continued fight for justice for all humankind. The resonance of gospel hymns and classical music performed by Mary D. Williams and Louise Toppin carried us in song through the memories of a movement which today serves as a backdrop to Black Lives Matter.

  I Am A Man: Civil Rights Photographs in the American South, 1960-1970, will be on display at the Pavillon Populaire until January 6. After that, it will travel to The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. for an April 2019 opening and next to the Museum Africa in Johannesburg, South Africa in September 2019. My hope is to bring this exhibition, with an added focus on Oklahoma, to The University of Tulsa and the Tulsa community to coincide with the Tulsa Massacre Centennial in 2021.


What were the challenges to creating this exhibit?

Montgomery, AL Sheriff’s Department mugshots and arrest ledgers of Freedom Riders

One of the challenges we faced in curating the exhibition I Am A Man: Civil Rights Photographs in the American South, 1960-1970, was our aim to discover little-known photographers of the Civil Rights Movement whose talents had been lost to time or shuttered away in storage. It took a lot of patience and persistence to track down this primary source material, some still unseen to the public. We corresponded frequently with living photographers or their heirs and with archives of varying size and capabilities, all while attempting to maintain an insightful eye for distinct, meaningful imagery and a curatorial vision. Our scope was also fairly large, so we went about research state by state, and then determined subject matter based on findings. In context we developed subtopics such as:

  • voter registration
  • segregation
  • protests and rallies
  • civil disobedience
  • repression
  • school & training
  • daily life and culture
  • music and celebrity.

With over a thousand images gathered, the exhibition featured 17 named photographers, amongst those listed as “unknown,” who ranged from amateurs, to local photojournalists, to those who would later become world-renowned in the photographic world. Some of the key events featured were:

  • The Freedom Rides, Jackson, MS and Birmingham, AL, 1961,
  • James Meredith’s Entrance at the University of Mississippi, 1962,
  • The March on Washington, 1963,
  • Ku Klux Klan Rallies in North Carolina, 1964-1969,
  • Marches from Selma to Montgomery, AL, 1965,
  • March Against Fear led by James Meredith, 1966,
  • The Mule Train or The March of The Poor, 1968,
  • The Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, 1968 (the title I Am A Man is derived from the slogan used in the Sanitation Strike), and
  • the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, 1968.

As the research expanded we also sourced five films and dozens of ephemeral pieces to include alongside the 250+ photographs.


How did you get involved in this exhibit?

Professor Michaela O’Brien between photographer Doris Derby and Civil Rights Movement icon James Meredith at the I Am a Man exhibition entrance.

While I was teaching at Duke University I also began working with Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History Emeritus and Senior Associate Director Emeritus of the Center for the Study of the American South Bill Ferris at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He and I have a shared interest in documentary film, photography and folklore and have formed a wonderful mentor-mentee relationship.

I was brought on to make high-quality color exhibition prints from Bill’s beautiful color slide film which focused on his formative years as a documentarian of the American South in the sixties and seventies. These exhibition prints would accompany the publication of the book The South in Color. Bill was then approached by Gilles Mora, the Artistic Director of the Pavillon Populaire and photo historian, to curate an exhibit about the Civil Rights Movement in the American South from 1960-1970.

I have a background and continued interest in archival research for books, documentary films, museums and exhibitions. In my documentary practice, I frequently engage with and interject a contemporary point of view on archival materials found during fieldwork or located within archives. Knowing this, Bill hired me as Lead Archival Researcher and Associate Curator, and thus our journey began!


Why did the exhibition tour begin in Montpellier, France?

The Pavillon Populaire is the premiere photographic art venue in Montpellier, France. Following the opening of the I Am a Man exhibition, a two day symposium was held at the Musée Fabre, Montpellier’s fine art museum. Entitled “Memories of the Civil Rights Movement” and presented in English, it addressed representations of the American Civil Rights Movement in literary, musical and photographic works from the 1960s to present day through the work of French and American scholars, artists, researchers and civil rights activists.

Montpellier is a bustling city full of art and culture, and I was truly impressed by the amount of interested young students who visited the exhibition and symposium. Philippe Saurel, Mayor of Montpellier and President of Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole, has invested 62M€ to forming the city into a cultural laboratory and a candidate for the European Capital of Culture 2028. Montpellier is a gorgeous place which prioritizes education and culture, and we were lucky to be commissioned by this city as it gave us a great start to an exhibition with much anticipated mileage.