Love, Character, and Ordinary People: A Visit with the World’s Greatest Tour Guide

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Shirley Cherry

“That’s where the bomb hit,” Shirley Cherry says, pointing to a nondescript spot on the porch of the old Montgomery, Alabama house.  The little girl standing on that spot jumped and moved as if it all might happen again.  Perhaps another bomb thrown by a racist terrorist upset about the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott might explode again into the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church parsonage.  Maybe 3-500 angry black citizens, many of them armed, might gather on the lawn once more and threaten retaliation.  Maybe a young pastor in his first appointment might come out onto that porch, after checking on the safety of his wife and children, and advise the crowd in strong, measured, gospel-filled words to go home.  “We know a better way,” Martin Luther King, Jr. might say.  Love is a better way.

IMG_6567Such is the power of Dr. Shirley Cherry to make the past come alive that she can make you see all those things on the porch of 309 S Jackson Street (“Remember that number,” Cherry says.)  She can also help you see how that past persists.  When I arrived at the Interpretive Center, (this was my second visit), Dr. Cherry immediately introduced me to Nelson Malden.

“This is the man who gave Martin Luther King his first haircut in Montgomery and his last haircut before he died,” she said.  It seemed impossible because Mr. Malden looked far too young to have been cutting hair in 1954 when King arrived in the city.  But sure enough, he had vivid tales to tell of King’s first visit, of the way he talked about the haircut Malden gave him and teased him about his tithe as a way of explaining why he didn’t tip him.

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Alex, Nelson Malden, and Shirley Cherry

As the tour group moved over to the parsonage, Dr. Cherry spotted 95-year-old Vera Harris out on the porch of her home.  In 1961 Harris and her husband, Richard, sheltered Freedom Riders like Diane Nash, James Farmer, and John Lewis, after they were attacked on their journey to desegregate interstate bus travel.  Cherry marched the thirty-some tour participants over to Harris’s swing and gave them the opportunity to shake hands with a living Civil Rights veteran, to Harris’s great delight.

There is a lot to see at the Dexter Parsonage: The table where the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed.  The study where King wrote.  The kitchen where he sat at midnight on January 27, 1956, praying for courage over a cup of coffee after yet another anonymous phone call threatening his life — a moment he recounted in his last sermon, the famous ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ sermon:

It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”

Shirley Cherry keeps the kitchen dark as she tells this story to mimic that midnight hour.  “That’s the kettle he used to make his coffee.  This is where he sat.”  But then she gets personal.

It’s not just King’s story she’s telling; it’s hers.  She knew poverty growing up.  She saw the pictures of dead Emmett Till, brutalized and murdered in next door Mississippi for allegedly whistling at and grabbing at a white woman.  (That woman, Carolyn Bryant, now says that grabbing never happened.)  A young Shirley saw those pictures and heard the unspoken message, “You better know your place.  Or else.”

But King gave her a different narrative.  She draws a young teenager in close to her.  “What’s your name?”

“Hannah.”

IMG_6570Shirley drapes an arm around her shoulders.  It is grandmotherly and sisterly all at once.  “Hannah, Dr. King taught me to look people in the eye.  To look white people in the eye. Will you make a pledge to me?”

Hannah says ‘yes’ before even knowing what it will be.

“You can answer on behalf of all the people in this room because they all need to make this pledge.  Will you keep looking forward and not look back?”

“Yes.”

“There are things in life that will break your heart, but you must learn how to let them break your heart, but never, EVER, let them break your spirit.”

“Dee Dee,” she points to another teenager, a basketball player that she has called on earlier in the tour.  “You stand up straight now.”  I noticed a lot of us standing up a little straighter at that moment.  Did it myself.

“There are three things I want you to take away from here,” Shirley had told us earlier.  “Love, character, and ordinary people can do extraordinary things.”

After the tour, over salmon, stewed tomatoes, and collards at the cafeteria of the Alabama Center for Commerce, I asked her where she had gotten that mantra.

“The only thing that is really, really missing today is love and it doesn’t mean loving somebody when it’s easy to love them. If it doesn’t have anything to do with love, it doesn’t mean anything anyway.  Only what’s done for love will last. So if you say you know God and you don’t know love…you know the Book says that ‘if you do not know love, you do not know me and I don’t know you.’”

IMG_6577She talked about her 31 years of teaching (with only 1 disciplinary referral!) and what she tried to inspire in her students.  “I used to put my arms around my students and go, ‘Do you know what you have?’  They’d look at me like I’m crazy.  And I would say ‘Potential, and I want it.’ They knew not to give me anything second-rate.  They knew that.  Besides that I had my character quote too: ‘One must be on a lifelong quest for excellence.’ Oh, and it drives me crazy when you see people who just want you to love mediocrity. Colin Powell said, ‘The best way to achieve mediocrity is to try to please everybody.’ I’m not trying to please anybody but myself and if somebody says what somebody else thinks about me that has nothing to do with me.

“I’ve got to tell these people what it meant and why it mattered – what Martin Luther King did and Caretta and all the rest of them. It meant something. It meant that we had a better world. It meant that we weren’t just black and white but we were a world.”

I guess you know, that if you’re ever in Montgomery, or even close, you have to go to 309 S Jackson Street.

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What I Learned From a Day with Emmett Till

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In the video, Johnny B. Thomas, mayor of Glendora, Mississippi, looks out over Black Bayou. This is where the body of Emmett Till was dumped following his brutalization and murder in 1955.  In a voiceover, Thomas says, in effect, “Things haven’t changed here.  A lot of the problems that were here then are here now.”

It’s hard to argue with that.  Spending a few days in the Delta, I feel as if I’m in a place where economic opportunity is still stagnant and racial reconciliation is still a long way off.  In many ways, it’s similar to my own home on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.  This is a place where young people are told, by observation if not in words, “Your best chance is to leave and if you do stay, don’t set your sights too high.”

I spent the afternoon making the pilgrimage to the Emmett Till sites.  I wasn’t alone.  There are tour busses traveling through the area making the stops, too.  What else brings people to Money, Mississippi?

IMG_6583That’s where you can find the overgrown ruins of Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, the country store where 14-year-old Emmett, down from Chicago for a visit with his great uncle, Mose Wright, went on August 24, 1955.  While his companions were outside on the porch, Emmett went in and what happened in the minute he was in there has been a matter of dispute ever since.

Did he make lewd remarks and grab Carolyn Bryant, a white woman behind the counter, around the waist as she claimed (and recently recanted, in part)?  What was the character of the whistle he made as he was hustled away by his cousins?  Whatever offense it was in the complex racial structures of pre-Civil Rights Mississippi paled in comparison to what came next.

IMG_6586Next door to the ruins is a old filling station and store restored to look as it did in the 1950s, down to the Gulf pumps advertising No-Nox gasoline.  A sign, often vandalized, designates the spot on the Mississippi Freedom Trail.

Across the street, a group of white construction workers leaned against their equipment and watched me photographing the sign and store.  Later, they saw the tour bus pull up and a group of twenty-some people, all white, filed out.  It was hard not to project myself into the workers' heads.  “Is this all Mississippi is to the rest of the country?  A place to tut over and shake our heads and fingers at? Do they only come to the Delta to amplify its shame?”

Later I pulled into Glendora, former home of J.W. Milam, half-brother of Carolyn Bryant’s husband, Roy.  The house is gone now; just a patch of open ground remains.  Milam was acquitted of Till’s murder though he later confessed along with Roy Bryant in an infamous Look magazine article for which they were paid $4000.

Next door, still standing, is the cotton gin where Milam and Bryant found an old fan which they looped around Emmett’s neck with barbed wire before dumping his body.  As gruesome crimes go, they don’t get more gruesome.  Something that was obvious when Till’s horribly disfigured body was found three days later.  His mother’s decision to have an open casket for his funeral led to an iconic picture of the effects of white supremacy run amok.

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The cotton gin today houses a small museum called the Emmett Till Historical Intrepid Center.  You read that right.  Intrepid.  There was something a little intrepid, audacious, and fearless about Emmett Till.  Reckless, you might even call it.  By all accounts, the young teenager enjoyed being provocative and his murderers cited his refusal to act regretful as one of the reasons for their brutality.  It’s one of the things that make Emmett Till more than a victim in this story.  His refusal to be defined by the unjust powers of the day is ennobling.

So why not take a place that was commandeered for a heinous act and convert it into an intrepid center?  The museum is worth the visit, even if you may want for a little more air-conditioning on a really hot day.  The displays are visually interesting and help place Till’s story within a larger Civil Rights narrative.

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As I left the building I was being watched again, this time by a group of African-American men standing outside a nearby building by the railroad tracks.  Again I couldn’t help projecting myself into their heads.  “Is this all Mississippi is to the rest of the country?  A place to gawk at and burnish progressive credentials?  When, as Mayor Thomas said, nothing really changes?”

I brushed aside my self-consciousness to take a picture of the sign describing the Glendora Gin.  In the background of the photo was the place where Milam’s tool shed was, the place Milam & Bryant brought Emmett to be tortured and mutilated.  Well, at the very least…that’s gone.

Interchangeable heads and crayons in Selma – my interview with photographer Michael Mergen continues (part 2 of 3)

I’m so glad I obeyed my impulse at the stoplight in downtown Farmville, Virginia.  I was driving through and stopped at a red light next to the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts where a local photographer’s work was on display.  I pulled into a parking spot and discovered Michael Mergen.

In the first part of my interview with Michael Mergen we explored a unique series in which he juxtaposed the text of historical markers with the contemporary landscapes associated with them.  In this section of the interview we discuss the pairing of that Civil War series with a Civil Rights series and the lenses we bring to the world.

I begin here by referencing two other series he did related to things we give to veterans and places named for military personnel who died in the operation known as the Global War on Terror…

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SPC Brian Scott “Scotty” Ulbrich Memorial Bridge, West Virginia, 2012 – photo by Michael Mergen

What lens do you bring to [your subjects] that gives you a sense of what you’re seeing?  In your series of veterans pictures – what we give to veterans and what we name for veterans – I would look at them and say, “Wow, that is really shabby, and tacky, and ordinary.”  And then I’m thinking, “Well, but you know, there’s a real democracy in that.  They’re taking things that we use everyday.”

Right.  My background was as a photojournalist and I come from a tradition of being neutral and trying to remain unbiased.  As an artist, you have obviously more license to take a point of view and take a position.  But I’ve always strived for at least a level of neutrality in my work, or a level of trying to present something ‘as is’ or as I found it, and framing it for viewers to then make their own conclusions.

There’s an intentional ambiguity in what I’m saying in my pictures that I’m conscious of.  Again, trying to not make it about me or my opinion necessarily, but to highlight something that’s happening.  Then, hopefully there’s a conversation out of that or even some disagreement can come out of that.  Especially with the [Civil War] soldier monument one.  I think that’s the one that you can approach from a “Wow, it’s just troubling that there are this many monuments that still exist out of sympathy with the political rationale for the war, and what happened after the war with Jim Crow laws and those kind of things.”  But then, I think if you support that, if you look at that wall of photographs, you’d think, “Wow, isn’t that great, that in 2017, there’s still this quantity of monuments dedicated to this war and this movement that happened.”  So, I think I’m okay with the different entry points that the work might provide.

In that Civil War piece, you chose an interesting part of those monuments to focus on: the face of all the soldiers.  I’ve walked past those Confederate monuments my entire life and now I focus on the words that are written on them and I wonder why there’s not a similar set of monuments for the forgotten folks from that period and the monuments to the ending of slavery.  But you chose the part of the statue that you hardly ever get close to—the face of the statue.  I thought that was an interesting choice to use that.  What did you learn by doing that?

Well, of course, you focus on the words, because you’re the writer.

Yeah, that’s right.

1_mergenview01I look at the face because I’m a photographer.  I learned that there’s a whole lot of them that had the same head on them. That I had no idea going into it.  It wasn’t until I had photographed maybe 20 or 30 of them, and had them hanging up in the studio, and I was like, “Wow, these are the same heads.”  A lot of these were ordered and assembled from a catalogue.  So, the company would be like, “Okay, pick your head, pick your body.  Do you want cannon balls or a cannon?”  And they were sort of assembled that way.  And that’s the way the a lot of them were made.  There’s a handful that were commissioned by a sculptor or by an artist, but they didn’t dominate.  So, a lot of them were the same head.

Then, also, they’re all white men, which is not surprise, but it’s also a little bit visually arresting.  And I remember showing it to somebody at a photo conference, and they said, “These are archetypes for Colonel Sanders or a Johnny Rebel caricature in a way.”  Is that figure the representation of the ideal Southern man?  I thought about those headshots, doing portraits of these statues, and that was the knee-jerk thought that I had.

So, it’s also that using photography in a way to get you a little bit closer to something you couldn’t get to.  A lot of these things are 30/40/50 feet up.  You’re not really looking at them in that kind of detail.  So, it was interesting just from a technical standpoint, and to use a certain lens and camera and position to get you this intimate look at just these faces.

You don’t know if there was an ur-model, do you?

There’s a book by a guy named Timothy Sedore.  He wrote a book called An Illustrated Guide to Virginia’s Civil War Monuments.  It’s really richly detailed of every monument down to every tablet, every plinth, every obelisk.  I used that halfway through to better locate some of these.  In there, it’ll give an historical description of the monuments, and you can track down who made it and the cost, and those types of things.  But the one that I always come back to, there’s one in Portsmouth, Virginia that is four-sided.

I know it, yeah.

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Portsmouth Confederate Monument

It’s right downtown there and in the description it was claimed that each figure was modeled after a veteran from Portsmouth, but you look at it—put them side by side—and you’re like, “There’s just no way.”  There’s just no way that that was actually modeled after a veteran.  I mean, maybe that was the case, maybe that was the hope, but it’s the same head as in half a dozen other moments.

So, there was a handful that were unique, like one in Lynchburg, for example.  Lynchburg, maybe at the time, had more money to commission a sculptor or artisan, but I think in some of these more rural areas, they were happy probably to put something up, and if it looked like the one two counties away, well, no big deal, because a hundred years ago, chances are you don’t really go to that county.

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photo by Michael Mergen

Going back to the crayon-inscribed photos in the exhibition [at the Longwood Center for Visual Arts], you had the Civil War series right across from the Civil Rights series, which was a really interesting juxtaposition, but what struck me is, having been to Selma and seen that landscape, how similar it is to the place where you are now.  So what did you see as a connection there or a contrast?

Part of the connection was historical, in that the end of the Civil War, 1865, and the galvanizing moments of Civil Rights–it’s almost a hundred years later to the day.  That was a strange coincidence, but they’re like two bookends, these two high water marks of American history—like a hundred years, within a week of each other.

So, that was part of it.  It was just seeing how these two things worked together.  In some ways, the end of the Civil War marked the inevitable beginning of the Civil Rights movement.  I think a lot of the political decisions, the way the political landscape was shaped post-Reconstruction, led to a situation where there had to be the Civil Rights Movement.

But it’s also a nearby, Southern, historical journey from point A to point B, that had been marked with signs.  So, it was logistically a way to continue the same process…The 50 year anniversary of Selma was coming up and Barack Obama was down there, and the movie came out.  And I was like, “Oh, this could be another way of continuing this process, continuing this exploration of these marked historical landscapes.”

Michael Mergen’s series Confederate Heroes, Confederate Dead was featured in the Oxford American magazine.

Michael Mergen’s work can be found at his personal site: www.mimages.com.