SANTA FE, N.M. — Faces grim, bundled up against a chill, African-Americans stand watchfully around a middle-aged woman holding a cardboard plea: Stop police killings.
A young black man in long dreadlocks, hands raised, backs slowly from three approaching white police officers encased in gas masks, helmets and military-type gear, pointing automatic weapons at him.
The protest with the placard was recorded by photographer Steve Schapiro in 1965 in Selma, Ala. The confrontation with police was captured by photographer Whitney Curtis in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 14, 2014. The images span a half-century, forcefully questioning whether we have come as far as we think we have in the civil rights struggles that have defined and divided our nation.
You can visually travel “The Long Road: From Selma to Ferguson” in an exhibition of 50 or so photos at the Monroe Gallery of Photography through Sept. 27. An opening reception will be held 5-7 tonight.
“The broader theme touches everybody,” said gallery co-owner Sidney Monroe. “It’s a universal story when you come right down to it. The definition of civil rights is that it’s for everybody.”
When he and wife Michelle Monroe were planning the exhibit, they initially were going to focus on the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” when police and possemen attacked civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge with tear gas and billy clubs as they tried to walk from Selma to Montgomery.
But then weeks-long riots erupted in Ferguson, Mo., after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed on Aug. 9 by a white police officer.
“It was almost like seeing history repeat itself,” Monroe said. “Such striking visuals were coming out of that.”
So the exhibition was broadened to the present – although even later headlines like the shooting and killing of nine people in a Charleston, S.C., church probably won’t have a direct visual presence. But the underlying truths will still be there, all the way back to Margaret Bourke-White’s iconic photo of African-Americans lining up for relief after a Louisville flood in 1937. They wait right in front of a billboard photo of a white family of four smiling in their car touting: “World’s Highest Standard of Living: There’s no way like the American way.”
The Monroe Gallery concentrates on photojournalism, a pursuit that Sidney Monroe says could and has changed history.
One reporter has said that it was Life magazine’s photos of pro-segregation people, faces contorted with hate, screaming at peaceful civil rights protesters that brought home to many whites what the civil rights struggle was about, according to Monroe.
“It started to sway public opinion,” he said.
It’s those powerful, vivid images that remain in our minds when we picture what happened during the ’60s: protesters struggling under the force of fire hoses, police dogs snapping at their legs, apprehensive children under armed protection to integrate schools, black faces lined up at lunch counters.
Sometimes the irony is so thick you can choke on it: Swastika-adorned marchers with the American Nazi Party protest pending integration of the Washington pro football team in 1961 with a sign saying “Keep Redskins White.”
The exhibition also will touch on other civil rights issues, including the women’s movement, gay rights and César Chavez’s fight for the farmworkers, Monroe said. Native American struggles may not be represented, he added, because the gallery doesn’t have images symbolic of that movement.
“Inarguably, we’re going to miss something,” he said. “But it’s better to miss it than to not do it correctly.”
The exhibition aims to be more than a set of photos, but to give a story arc to the subject, Monroe said. “It’s not just a focus on moments in time, but in the whole time line,” he said, demonstrating the highs and the lows, the good and bad, the moments of despair and reasons for hope.
It also raises the question of whether this type of photojournalism is still as powerful today. News sources are more fragmented, without a publication like Life magazine that reached the nation with compelling photographs, for instance.
At the same time, the Internet can carry images from either professionals or from any person’s cellphone to a worldwide audience. Photos or video by passers-by at the scene of purported police violence, for example, have brought that issue to the national forefront.
“We’re more dependent on video images now,” Monroe said. It’s too early to tell if some of the still images from current events will become iconic down the road, he added.
But the scope of the exhibit makes one thing clear.
It’s easy for us to look back at the historic photos, appalled at what they show about events in the 1960s, but say reassuringly to ourselves, “We learned from that,” Monroe said.
With the latest images from the news, we can’t be complacent. “Civil rights is an ongoing question,” he said.