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Benton brings student activism to light: New photography exhibit on Civil Rights movement highlights

By Kathleen McWilliams
On January 21, 2014

The William Benton Museum of Art welcomed a new exhibit that features the work of photographers Ernest Withers and Danny Lyon. The exhibit, entitled "Making the Movement Move: Photography, Student Activism and Civil Rights," focused on the involvement of young people in the movement. The installment also strives to emphasize the role of photography in helping the Civil Rights movement come to fruition.
The gallery was filled with black and white photographs with historical background on each photo. The subjects of the photos ranged from high school student activists to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. In the back corner of the gallery, a loop of news footage from CBS highlighted events of the movement as well as popular opinions from both sides. The footage showed live scenes of the violence in the South, bringing the struggle to life.
Similarly the photos bring the history of the Civil Rights movement closer to UConn students. Many of the subjects of the photos are students or children who participated in the movement. For example, one photo by Lyon showed high school student Taylor Washington being arrested after peaceful demonstration.
Other photos demonstrated parts of the movement whose history is less known. One such photograph showed African American fighting for voting rights by registering to vote despite death threats. The Benton provided some historical background to the event saying, "More than 1,000 white northern students travelled south to volunteer with the Mississippi Freedom Summer Campaign...the program allowed for a racially and culturally diverse community to form around a shared cause."
Other photos opened new doors for learning about Civil Rights. One photograph of police using fire hoses in Danville, Virginia reminds students that the Civil Rights movement was not just a phenomenon of the Deep South, but active in Virginia, North Caroline and Tennessee.
Other photographs included in the exhibit are the icons of Civil Rights. The photo of Walter Gadsen being held by his sweater by Birmingham police as a dog vicious bites his stomach has become the symbol of the brutality that protestors faced, but also helped protestors gain some ground in their struggle. "Hudon's photograph of sixteen-year-old Walter Gadsen's encounter with Birmingham policeman and dogs on May 3, 1963 appeared the next day on the front page of the NYT. The image had a strong impact on perceptions of the movement," the information next to the photo read.
One photo of Withers' captured the arrival of the Little Rock Nine in 1957. Unlike the famous photos of Elizabeth Eckford arriving alone at the school, Withers' photograph focused on the other eight students arriving in a car and gathering their belongings. The lesser known photograph shed new light on the individuals who helped desegregate schools.
On the whole, the exhibit was informative and eye opening. For those looking for a way to celebrate, albeit belatedly, the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr, the exhibit will be open until March 30.

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