Fifty years of progress?

Danny Lyon: Memories of the Civil Rights Movement at Herndon Gallery

By Sarah Sidlow

Photo: Protesters stage a sit-in at Toddle House in Atlanta, Georgia, December, 1963; photo: Danny Lyon

The Herndon Gallery, tucked unassumingly away inside an academic building on the campus of Antioch College, is a blank canvas. The medium-sized art epicenter has transformed itself to tell stories in keeping with Antioch’s missions of sustainability, activism and social justice in our modern world.

Today, Herndon looks back, commemorating its first graduating class since reopening, as well as the 50-year reunion of the class of 1965, with a display of breathtaking black and white photography from the Civil Rights Movement, as seen through the lens of photographer Danny Lyon.

Memories of the Civil Rights Movement, which focuses on the period between 1962 and 1964, is as understated as it is powerful. Here, young African Americans sit peacefully at lunch counters waiting for service that never comes. Next to them are scenes of violence—shoes in the air as young men are carried off by police, fire hoses turned on children—a deliberate representation of the dichotomy of the Movement, between the peaceful teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the less passive approaches of others seeking to prevent change.

“People who were peacefully protesting were experiencing violence and they were experiencing indignities and injustices,” says Jennifer Wenker, Herndon Gallery creative director, “it just didn’t match what was happening, hoses being put on peaceful protesters or children being thrown in jail, it just didn’t make sense, so I think the position was important to the exhibition.”

And while imagery from this upside-down world should speak to us all, Antioch’s history of social activism establishes even closer ties.

Antioch is the academic home to many socially active students and alumni. Notable alums include Steve Schwerner and David Goodman, the brothers of Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who along with James Chaney came to embody the struggle of the Movement when they were kidnapped and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in 1964, at the beginning of the Freedom Summer voting registration project headed by northern college students.

Lithographic portraits of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman hang in the gallery as guests walk in. Created by notable social modernist Ben Shahn (1898-1966), they are a permanent fixture at Antioch, usually displayed in McGregor Hall, in the Office of the President, a reminder of Antioch’s creed of social justice. Their current home at Herndon is by student suggestion.

Remarkable is the history of activism in such a small, relatively homogeneous cul-de-sac in middle-Ohio, Middle America.

“[Antioch] really does attract students that are and have been brought up to think globally and think very far outside of their own situations and circumstances,” Wenker says.

In fact, it was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who delivered the commencement address to Antioch’s class of ’65. And it was David Goodman, now a member of Antioch’s Board of Trustees, who suggested Antioch begin communicating with photographer Lyon (Goodman had previously helped fund the reprinting of Lyon’s book of photography) as part of their reunion celebration, beginning a dialogue Wenker describes as “nice and entertaining, and quirky and eccentric and kind of wonderful.”

Lyon’s lifetime of photography was shaped by his early experiences as a staff photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s, during which time he captured a number of these breathtaking images, as well as the bug to continue documenting themes of social change throughout his career. From the March on Washington, to the aftermath of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, Lyon was there.

The self-taught photographer has won two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Rockefeller Fellowship and ten National Endowment for the Arts awards.

Remarkable too is the chilling resemblance many of these images share to modern photojournalism, a point emphasized by the exhibit’s many companion events and components including offerings by the Black Lives Matter group, which remembers the recent tragic shooting of John Crawford III. Other partner events have included discussions regarding the contentious symbolism of the Confederate flag. These topics and more remind us that the story of the Civil Rights Movement is yet ongoing, and the lessons of those who engaged may not yet be fully realized.

“Unfortunately, there’s so much media, and you see it and—I don’t know,” Wenker pauses. “I just don’t know how to get people that aren’t watching. People just need to understand that that’s just a horrendous way to hurt people. And make it stop.”

Danny Lyon: Memories of the Civil Rights Movement will be on view through August 7 at the Herndon Gallery, at South Hall, Morgan Place at Antioch College in Yellow Springs. The Gallery is open Tuesdays-Saturdays, 1 p.m.-4 p.m. For more information, please visit antiochcollege.org/campus-life/herndon-gallery.

 

Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at Editor@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Sarah Sidlow
Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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