My husband lay dying in a pool of blood on the doorstep of our home in Jackson, Mississippi. His body had been toppled by a cowardly assassin's bullet and left for the worldand his childrento see. I can still see Medgar's handsome features distorted in excruciating pain as he succumbed to death's premature call. It is this distinct memory of his final hours during that June day in 1963 that has haunted me as I have looked back over this book's often scathing yet also inspiring images.
I don't remember the details of his funeral. That widely publicized photo of a tearstained young woman mourning the death of her first love could not have been me. I was too inexperienced to have been a widow. And my husband was too peace-loving to have been a casualty of war.
Just days before Medgar's death, he had remarked to a reporter: "If I die, it will be in a good cause. I've been fighting for America just as much as soldiers in Vietnam." I wonder about the images that my husband must have carried within him on his quest for equality. How emotionally draining it must have been on his spirit to bear in mind the unrecognizable portrait of the battered Emmett Till as Medgar pursued justice to bring the young boy's murderers to trial. Nothing could have shielded Medgar's eyes from the deplorable conditions of the Mississippi sharecroppers or from the "strange fruit" hung on trees by brutal barbarians.
When the struggle for freedom began in the late 1950s, the individuals participating in the civil rights movement could not possibly have foreseen that protesting in support of basic human dignity would culminate in one of the most heartrending civil wars of American history. The stories and the photographs seen in this book testify to the shameful conditions endured by black Americans during a period when democracy was being promoted and fought for on the international front. Most blacks in America lived without even the limited liberties afforded citizens of third-world countries. The faces that stare at you from the pages that follow are marked with the determination of individuals who were prepared to die for their own right to be free.
While some of the faces in these photographs reflect the scars and weary tears of battle fatigue, there are also visions of hope mirrored in the eyes of the warriors. A picture of the Little Rock Nine studying in quiet determination pending their admittance into the town's previously segregated high school offers evidence that we were moving in the right direction. Just three years before, the victorious 1954 decision of Brown v. Board of Education had struck down segregation in the nation's public schools, and it has also been applied to promoting equality in all aspects of American society. And who can forget the moving, spirited challenge of Fannie Lou Hamer's emotional testimony, when she moved the hearts of all those who heard her during the 1964 Democratic Convention. These are but two of the proud images to be seen in this work.
Every battle has its public and its private moments of defeat and victory. Every historical moment is made up of a multitude of personal experiences. Those battles and those experiences within the civil rights movement have been prolifically documented in written histories, but the camera has captured them with even greater force. For those of us who lived through these events, nothing brings them to mind more vividly than the extremely moving photographs seen here. They also serve to educate generations who were not alive during this provocative stage in our history. A young woman recently commented to me that she "hears so many speak about that period of time. It helps to hear the story, but we wantand needmore. Photos help because we can touch them and try to feel what it was like to live during that time."
As we search for answers to help us solve the pressing issues in this country, books such as this one will play a major part. Not only does it take us back to a period when events originated that would shape the American scene for years to come, but it also reinforces the need to address civil rights issues into the twenty-first century.
I find it difficult to look at these photographs without flinching from the memories and from the anger they invoke. But I must look. I must remember, as you must. For this was history in the making. Like it or not, you cannot hide from the camera's eye.