21-year-old's photos create a time capsule of 1964 in Mississippi

Spectators rally for Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace for president at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson on June 25, 1964. (Photo by Joel Katz)

ss10102014p06pha.jpgAND I SAID NO LORD: A TWENTY-ONE-YEAR-OLD IN MISSISSIPPI IN 1964
By Joel Katz
Published by the University of Alabama Press, $49.95

Joel Katz's photographs and journal from Mississippi, published 50 years after his travels there during 1964's Freedom Summer, spotlight a world that may seem centuries old to young people in a world of diversity assumed.

Today, Mississippi has an African-American congressman, and crossover black Democrats provided the margin in 76-year-old Republican Sen. Thad Cochran's narrow victory in a recent primary over a tea party challenger. But as William Faulkner famously wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past," and we recently saw national media coverage of protests in a suburb of St. Louis after a police officer shot and killed an African-American youth, another episode in the continuing story of a systemic injustice under which many black people live.

And I Said No Lord is a time capsule. An author, photographer and information designer based in Philadelphia, Katz was a Yale undergraduate in 1964, just getting involved in photography when he drove south and circulated through Mississippi, taking pictures in a summer that drew activists from many states to push for desegregation and voting rights. He wrote narrative essays linked to thematic sections of the pictures.

Three young men working for civil rights were kidnapped in Neshoba County that summer, prompting a massive FBI investigation.

Visit NCR's Online Classifieds to learn about job opportunities, events, retreats and more!

Katz writes that he knew "the civil rights movement didn't need another photographer or reporter." He wanted to take pictures, and had rational concerns for his safety. He wrote to Mississippi Gov. Paul Johnson, "asking for his blessing, and more tangibly, what I hoped would be a safe-conduct pass to get me through enemy lines and back again." Johnson is a largely forgettable figure of Southern politics, though he got elected to the top office because of his grandstanding as lieutenant governor in 1962, opposing James Meredith's entry as the first black student at Ole Miss.

Katz's letter worked; the White Citizens' Council helped him get a press credential from the Jackson Daily News that let him roam, more or less freely, without pressure to publish.

The Citizens' Council was the button-down version of the Ku Klux Klan, the business interests determined to preserve an Old South way of life without openly resorting to violence. Mississippi legislators created a State Sovereignty Commission that functioned like a combined FBI/CIA, spying on a widespread basis, as revealed decades later by Jerry Mitchell's investigative reporting for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.

Katz photographed in black-and-white with a deep personal touch.

Segregation lives in a cafe with a painted finger pointed toward a door marked "Colored."

The starkness of a rural shack and four black children on an empty day conveys a way of life, and few upward hopes.

A woman in a field with a hoe stands waist-high in a vegetable crop.

The picture of a boy entering a kitchen wrapped in glaring light is one that a more seasoned photographer might have improved by rearranging his position to reduce the glare. But Katz was young.

He finds an aura of intimacy in the well-dressed black women at a table, with cigarettes and beer, smiling from a hidden world.

Some of the black folk he photographed stare at us with enigmatic or amused expressions -- no inkling of the moment, themselves, preserved across a half-century.

"The Supreme Court is trying to disenfranchise white majorities, and white minorities in the counties where there are more nigras than whites," a Citizens' Council spokesman named Robert Dale Williams, frustration rising, tells Katz.

Fifty years later, a conservative-majority Supreme Court has taken a wrench to the Voting Rights Act, after Republicans gerrymandered congressional districts across the greater South to dilute the African-American vote by stuffing it into neat, black-majority districts, leaving whites as the majority in other districts. Thus is Congress gridlocked.

The one African-American on the court, Clarence Thomas, is an evangelical pentecostal Catholic hostile to every program that opened the way for black people to vote, find better schools, jobs and career paths. As the French say, the more things change, the more they don't change.

Katz interviewed Williams, the public relations director of the council, before the bludgeoned bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were excavated from an earthen dam close to where their car was found. In a country still reeling from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act the following year.

Dawn Gordon's PBS documentary "Spies of Mississippi" trains a viewfinder on the collusion between the Citizens' Council and Sovereignty Commission, leaking information to Klansmen on the three young activists.

Flashback to 50 summers ago, before discovery of the bodies.

"Missing?" Williams tells Katz. "I haven't missed them. For all I know they may be drinking vodka in Havana by now. ... If a white man killed them to make an example of them, they would've left them hanging from a tree, that's the way to make an example of them."

The bluster in that sentence conceals what the evidence today would let us fairly call state-sponsored terrorism.

The tea party is much cleverer in concealing the "I've got mine, Jack" mentality of social Darwinism and disguising hatred for a black president behind a scrim of economic conservatism.

Certain images in And I Said No Lord, when viewed with hindsight, speak volumes about the crushing moral ambivalence of the old South. A white girl in a nice dress stops midstride, gazing back uneasily at the lens, while a few feet to her left an elderly black woman touches the bottom step that leads up to a battered house, as she tries to get balance. A second girl is looking at the old woman. There is no innocence in the moment. Distance and nearness are indissoluble. The girls are swallowed by something larger than themselves and too young to understand.

Katz's photographs of black children, and the spare scenery of interior shots in Delta shacks, register moments of innocence and endurance that the popular mind no longer associates with the South. Poverty is not much covered by TV today other than the nightly show on homicide in most urban markets.

The rutted foreheads and melancholy in the eyes of elderly blacks carry a message across time, a reality that could sadly be found today if the forgotten back counties of the lower South and elsewhere held much interest in the national psyche. The Delta counties once known for plantation estates and producing writers like Richard Wright, Walker Percy and Shelby Foote are fraught with drug violence. The dying plantation economy of the Deep South services the drug cartels buying up huge chunks of Central America for plantations harvesting pot and raw leaves for cocaine. Casinos are the big industry in the Delta.

Mississippi has indeed come far since the dark year when Katz traveled with his camera. The state has more African-American officials on the state and local level than most people then would have dreamed. Ole Miss removed Colonel Reb as its emblem and the football teams field star black athletes. One could go down a list of signs that suggest how a society long built on white privilege has slowly bent toward justice, at least in terms of voting and basic human rights.

And I Said No Lord captures a mindset and way of life at a time just before Mississippi began to turn. And yet, how far Mississippi still has to go.

[NCR contributor Jason Berry's first book, Amazing Grace: With Charles Evers in Mississippi, was published in 1973.]

This story appeared in the Oct 10-23, 2014 print issue under the headline: A time capsule of 1964 .

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here

Advertisement