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Race, photography and City Hall
From the autumn of 1969 till three years later, I was the news editor of the most militant black newspaper in Atlanta .This city lays claim to be the most race conscious city in the nation. It was the hub of the great revolving wheel of the Civil Rights Movement. Atlanta provided the generals and the grunt troops to the great push to put Ol’ Man Dixie back into his wormy box built by slavery and sustained by segregation.
In an act of transracial heroism, the voice publisher J. Lowell Ware hired me to be the “white boy with the black press” just as social protest was pivoting into political activism. I wrote about Andy Young’s defeat in 1970 and victory two years later to become first black congressman from the South since Reconstruction. I followed Maynard Jackson’s rise from president of the board of aldermen to Atlanta’s first black mayor ever.
Where race was on the docket of a transforming South during the 1970s, there I was with notebook and free reign to say anything I damn well pleased. And of course, I had my cameras.
Mr. Ware paid very little to any of us in the former house converted to newspaper offices on West Hunter Street in 1969. So I bought a bunch of cheap 35mm cameras, wide angle and zoom lens and used freelance editorial photography to supplement my meagre income.
For years, tens of thousands of negatives sat in damp basements, dusty closets or lined hallways in putrid green plastic cases and waited patiently to live again, and tell of That 70s Atlanta, a time and place of major significance in the development of the city today.
Well, the time of this antique picturework has come round at last and I’m terrified.
A chance conversation with a woman in the mayor’s office whose activist father I photographed back in the day has led to a week-long exhibit in the atrium of Atlanta City Hall. And on Wednesday, I face a skeptical public in Atlanta City Council chambers as I do a digital projection of those photos, tell stories and more.
Three city councilmen with Movement backgrounds, C.T. Martin, Michael Julian Bond and Kwanza Hall, will sponsor a reception. I feel dizzy, humbled and like I’m going to barf.
And the media. Crikey, the media.
I worked in their frenzied profession for 30 years and know how they gin up readers/viewers/ratings. “Do you personally ever have feelings of racism? Have you ever had a black lover? Do blacks engage in reverse racism? Are you abandoning your own race?”
Well Wolf, it’s like this…
I routinely face overcrowded classrooms full of 13-year-old Latino students in a Los Angeles barrio. But I feel less trepidation there than I will in one week showing my photos of black folk and talking about black folk to a city and its government mostly of black folk. And darlin’, I’m a very white old guy who should be out working for Mitt Romney. I should not be jumping the shark at my exceedingly advanced age. They move too damn fast.
But the times are right for an exhibit of this sort of documentary photography. These old photos speak of an age, a city, a mood, when many people of whatever race sought that Beloved Community of which Dr. King and the Bible said would happen if we just pursued the goals of justice and the Golden Rule.
These photos are ghosts of the time I call the Dream Wind. The mighty legacy blew through all parts of Martin King’s hometown, from the streets to the suites for the decade of the 1970s.
The term Dream Wind comes from the experience you have in a MARTA subway tunnel. When the train whizzes through, It displaces air that continues to move through the station long after the train has vanished down the tunnel. That was Atlanta during the 1970s. Dr. King had passed on, but his influence was so deep that a psychosocial wind continued to influence us all for a full decade. Ask people who were there. It was the decade of the Dream Wind that I photographed.
The happy time ended only in the summer of 1979 when the first of the children turned up dead in a trauma of terror that pushed white and black back to their corners.
Bringing it around to election year 2012. The reelection campaign for our first black president has turned over the rocks of racism and exposed the never-absent strain in the American character that burned witches, exterminated Indians, enshrined segregation, lynched, supported totalitarian rule worldwide, oppressed women, machine gunned labor strikers, ruined people in Commie hunts and demanded we pray at their disfunctional wacka-doodle churches.
The bitch is back, thanks to the phenomenal event of the 2008 Obama election.
Advanced crackerdom is actually advocating a second civil war if he is reelected. Fergit, Hell. Yeah, I remember all this.
Old white men like me hate “Hussein” and want him defeated or worse. John Lewis, spat upon by Tea Bagging minions when he ran a gauntlet to vote on Obama’s health care legislation, said he’d never seen such intense hatred by whites during the Movement (uh, John, they split your skull at Selma).
And so yeah, this is a good time to bring these photos back. The camera doesn’t care about the color of the finger that trips the shutter or color of the face in the viewfinder.
If these photos and the era they represent reawaken an interest in the radical legacy of Martin King as opposed to an inert, merchandised cliche, all the better.
Atlanta did what it did in the 1970s without the presence of Dr. King.
Today we can reawaken the words and actions of this great man and move in his name in order to recall this nation to its highest and noblest calling: Government of the people, by the people and FOR the people.
- Image: Provided by author.
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