The power of a photograph

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Wednesday, February 27th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Megan Basham.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: The Civil Rights Movement.

It was a group crusade made up of individual struggles. Struggles for equal access to transportation, voting, jobs. Even equal access to a lunch counter.   

BASHAM: Last Wednesday the Mississippi Department of Transportation designated a portion of Highway 24 in memory of Anne Moody. She took a stand at a Woolworth’s five-and-dime store and became part of an iconic image.  

WORLD Radio’s Kim Henderson brings us the story.   

KIM HENDERSON, REPORTER: Capitol Street is the main drag through downtown Jackson, Mississippi. It’s home to the governor’s mansion, the old King Edward Hotel, and a busy Amtrak station. On a sunny afternoon, a security guard covers the sidewalk on his Segway. He stops to talk about the historical marker sitting in a grassy area by a sushi bar.

SECURITY GUARD: People come by, they stop. Like the tourists and stuff that come by and they look at it and see what’s going on with it and read it, take pictures of it and stuff like that.

Stephenie Morrisey of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History joins the discussion.

MORRISEY: The actual store no longer exists…

She walks over and reads the details of the May 28th, 1963 event.

MORRISEY: Three black Tougaloo college students sat down at the white lunch counter seeking service. The nonviolent protesters were attacked by an angry mob…

Morrisey says Capitol Street looked a little different back then. Instead of towering office buildings, busy storefronts lined the thoroughfare. That’s what Ed King remembers. He was the chaplain at Tougaloo, a private college originally established for the education of emancipated slaves. Although King is white, he was a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement.

KING: White merchants would not allow black women to try on clothes or black men to try on shoes, much less have restrooms or lunch counters or anything like that…

King was at the lunch counter sit-in. He was a “spotter,” someone sent to observe what happened. He wore his clerical collar and filled his pockets with plenty of nickels and dimes. He’d need them as he called in reports to Mississippi’s NAACP field secretary, Medger Evers.

KING: One of the white men grabbed the young black man at the counter, threw him to the floor, beat him and kicked him unconscious. They attacked the two women at the counter. They were knocked to the floor, dragged by the hair. Eventually the mob poured mustard, particularly on people’s hair. Um, the mob began to use paint from Woolworth’s counters and paint the “n” word or things like that on the back of the people’s clothes.

The abuse went on for three hours. Management finally closed the store, but not before newspaper photographer Fred Blackwell snapped the iconic photograph. He stood on top of the lunch counter and took the photo of 3 sit-in participants covered in mustard, ketchup, and sugar as an all-white crowd jeered. The eye-grabbing black-and-white image soon captured the attention of the nation.

KING: This is something that Americans in Maine or Americans in Minnesota or Nebraska could identify with and the picture was so dramatic, it went worldwide, and that brought pressure on the U.S. government. Why is America allowing this?

Mississippi’s civil rights museum opened in 2017. It’s the only state-operated museum like it in the country.

Richard Woollacott is an exhibit designer who helped select the photographs on display. He says one of the challenges was keeping them from becoming like wallpaper.

WOOLLACOTT: The images were so powerful that we had to be very, very careful because if you ran too many of them, you desensitize the visitor to the power of the individual image.

Memorabilia from the 1963 lunch counter sit-in is on display in Gallery 3.

MUSEUM VISITOR: That was the Woolworth’s boycott…

As visitors linger over NAACP flyers, a video reel shows picketers outside the Woolworth’s store. A large touchable copy of the lunch-counter photo is displayed at an angle, waist-high. A young couple bends down close to examine it.

SPANN: So this is the picture that has been shown really all over the world…

John Spann is the museum’s curator of education. When he looks at the picture of the three protesters, he hones in on Anne Moody.

SPANN: Moody’s book, Coming of Age in Mississippi, really helped me understand the local person’s point of view of the civil rights movement. This was somebody who was actually in the trenches actually going to jail, actually experiencing the brutality in these small towns and was willing to do it.

Spann thinks there’s a problem with iconic photos. They don’t tell the whole story. The one from the sit-in that’s been reproduced so many times? Well, it doesn’t portray the real degree of brutality that occurred that day.

Even so, the iconic image continues to educate and inspire, all these years later.

When young museum-goers stop by the “Capitol Street Confrontations” display, they see an example of students who worked together for change.

SPANN: Today we’ve had over 4,000 people come through and a lot of them have been children.

They also see what a commitment to nonviolence looks like.  

SPANN: They’re able to sit there and remain nonviolent, for a cause bigger than them, so people like me can enjoy the freedom that I have now. People coming through here, they’re like, how can they do that? How can I really make a difference using the fortitude that they had? You know, because it takes a strong person to just sit there and endure all of that pain and, beating and people talking nasty to you. They had people like me in mind. They were thinking about really all of America.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Kim Henderson reporting from Jackson, Mississippi.  

(Photo/Jackson Daily News)

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