An ongoing exhibition at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) hopes to prove that a single picture sometimes can more fully encapsulate a moment than a thousand words.
Freedom Now: Expressions of the Movement through Music and Civil Rights, on display in the Vann Gallery through Tuesday, Sept. 30, showcases the work of Birmingham photographer Cassandra Griffen.
“Griffen’s photographs reflect a largely untold story of the key role of jazz in helping shape and quicken the arrival of the Civil Rights Movement,” said Ahmad Ward, head of education and exhibitions at the BCRI. “We’re familiar with Cassandra’s work and we’ve had a couple of shows before. The first one was in 2002 on police brutality in the United States. It was not too long after Amadou Diallo was gunned down in New York.” Diallo, a 22-year-old immigrant from West Africa, was unarmed at the time he was shot to death by four New York City police officers in 1999. “It was one of the first times I met Cassandra, and I had a chance to view her images. They looked like something we would want to be involved in,” Ward explained.
“We’ve since had an exhibition of hers on Reverend [Fred] Shuttlesworth’s life. So, when she mentioned she wanted to do something with musicians who had an involvement with the Movement, and also some of the local civil rights icons, of course it fit into what we were doing. We just happened to have a little pocket of time in-between shows, and it just really fit,” Ward said.
Growing up in North Carolina, Griffen was exposed to racial tensions as she traveled around with her parents. “What we did have in Wilson, North Carolina, was the whole idea of segregated schools. And my father was very interested in that, as a former educator. [My parents] didn’t believe in children babysitting other children, so we went with them everywhere they went, and we saw demonstrations,” Griffen said. “What I saw more than anything was disparity. I was a debutante, and there I was looking at children who were very poor who didn’t have any alternatives.
“I made a commitment then that I would just devote myself to protecting the lives of people that could not protect themselves,” she said. Griffen received her first camera at age 11, and from then on started chronicling the events in her life.
Even though Griffen’s undergraduate degree was in physical education, her experience volunteering at a home for children and seeing the inequality of treatment there motivated her to go back to school and earn a degree in gerontology. The new field of study led her to an employment opportunity, along with a completely new perspective, at the Jewish Community Council (JCC).
“Everything I ever did from that point was influenced by that [work at the JCC] – even teaching women’s studies in New York was affected,” Griffen remarked.
In 1995, Griffen became the commissioner of human rights for Rockland County in New York. “This was an enforcement agency,” she said. “I had the power to subpoena, I had the power to investigate and I had the power to receive.” Housing was her specialty. “I was trying to expose how HUD [Housing and Urban Development] was not on top of low-income housing, or subsidized housing,” Griffen said.
In 1998, she authored and passed one the strongest fair-housing laws in the U.S. However, this achievement did not come without a personal toll. “People wanted to kill me,” she reflected. “I thought it was a joke, but my assistant said that I shouldn’t stay in my office late at night.”
Griffen then moved from New York to Birmingham to continue her work as a photographer with First World Gallery, where she has been the chief executive officer and curator since the 1980s. In 2001, she started to do research on the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the human rights work being done there. She began to learn about people such as Shuttlesworth and the foot soldiers. “I love Birmingham because there’s such a wealth of history that is alive,” Griffen said.
She feels that 80- and 90-year-olds have stories to tell about their time in the Movement, and she wants to hear and document them. “When you see someone who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, whose face still has the anguish in it, the hopefulness or hopelessness in it. They still cannot measure the good that the Civil Rights Movement made,” she said. “I was very involved at that time, and I’m still very involved. I’m committed to eliminating racism. I believe it can happen in my day,” she said.
One aspect of her ongoing involvement is the Freedom Now exhibition. “This is my first time bridging my musicians with my civil rights,” Griffen said. “This [exhibit] was even more exciting for me, because I’m trying to draw the viewer in to make the connection.”
She stressed the importance of musical artists – especially those in jazz – and their contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. “Jazz musicians did a lot for civil rights. In fact, depending on who you read, they may have even started the Civil Rights Movement through their music.” She mentioned musicians ranging from Nina Simone and Stanley Turrentine to Freddie Hubbard and Nancy Wilson, who all did work for civil rights. Some artists even received awards for their service work.
“In the 1940s, the only way blacks and whites were together was listening to music – even if the whites were over here and the blacks were over there, there was no balcony,” she said. “So, when you start dancing and going to James Brown, that barrier comes down because everybody is jumping up and down. If we centered this world on music, believe me, this world would be different,” she said.
Inside the Vann Gallery, her photos show not only such nationally and internationally recognized figures as Reverend Al Sharpton and President Barack Obama, but also those with local ties, such as Henry “Gip” Gipson, the railroad worker, gravedigger and musician known as the founder and owner of Gip’s Place, a juke joint in Bessemer.
When asked what the advantage is in expressing yourself in pictures rather than text, Griffen responded, “When you look at an image, that’s literally what it is. You don’t interpret that. You look at it and you feel what you feel based on your experiences.” She believes there’s an advantage to showing her work in a space the size of the Vann Gallery. “People will have a better opportunity to get close to the images. You might even know the person you’re looking at,” she said.
Ward hopes that visitors to the exhibition will want to learn more about all the faces on display, no matter the level of fame associated with a person. “One of the things that I hope they see is the lesser-known civil rights heroes. We always try to promote Reverend Shuttlesworth because we feel that without him, the Birmingham Movement would not have been successful. But there were a lot of people that helped him,” Ward stated. “You just have some great images of famous folks that today’s generation might not be as familiar with, like the jazz artists.”
Ward wants people to focus on music in the greater social context. “I hope that people get a chance to take away how the music has always been an important part of what has happened with the Civil Rights Movement – or just social movements, in general, in the United States,” he said.
Griffen echoed his sentiment. “I want people to see that there is a bridge between jazz, blues and civil rights,” she explained. “That when they begin to listen to music now…when they listen to Stanley Turrentine…just envision, what part of the civil rights movement was he into. If they don’t know him, they could do some research on him.
“There are very few barriers in music,” she said.