Celebrating 50 years of Selma in photo


50 years ago, 25,000 people stood at the steps of the Alabama State Capitol Building, waiting for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak. Many of them had spent the last five days marching 50 miles from Selma, Ala. to the Montgomery Capitol. They were cold, tired, and waiting on much more than just a speech.
The march was a tipping point in the Civil Rights battle. The struggle for voting rights in the United States, particularly the Deep South, was finally being addressed. Yet it is an event somewhat lost in time, overshadowed by moments of intense police brutality or the timeless, “I Have a Dream” speech. But as the 50th anniversary approaches, attention has been drawn again to the march and its significance.
Dr. Derrick Cartwright, the University of San Diego Director of University Galleries and Professor of Practice, believes this is a time to check our progress.
“This is a time to think about how far, or maybe, how little we’ve come,” Cartwright said.
Cartwright addressed a classroom of USD students last week about the campus exhibit, “Selma, 1965: Bruce Davidson and the Photography of Civil Rights.” The free exhibit opened March 6 and will run through May 22 in the Fine Art Galleries at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice. It is meant to commemorate the exceptional bravery of the citizens who participated in the march, as well as raise deep questions about the current state of racial affairs in the United States.
Cartwright is excited about the exhibit, which includes about 70 works of art with labels written by USD students. Most of the work is that of Civil Rights photographer Bruce Davidson, whose work has not received considerable attention over the years.
“Davidson was really the only photographer to shoot the entire march,” Cartwright said. “Others mostly convened at the end when the celebrities like Joan Baez came out and when Dr. King gave his speech.”
Besides capturing the participants in the march, Davidson also captured shocking moments such as the murder of activist Viola Liuzzo. He was run off the road and shot four times by the Klu Klux Klan on the final day of the march. Davidson’s photos have only been on exhibit twice before, once in their initial publication and once in a museum gallery about a decade ago.
To Cartwright, having these photos on exhibit is especially poignant given the recent racial tensions in the U.S. He noted the considerable parallels between the demographics and size of Selma, Ala. and Ferguson, Mo., where a majority of the current tension has arisen from. He hopes that visitors will feel inspired to begin a dialogue after viewing the art, as he himself was.
“I have a lot of feeling towards this art,” Cartwright said. “It’s not dead work. It has a power today that no one could’ve expected. Some are beautiful, but others made me feel humiliated as a human being.”
USD is one of only four or five other museums in the country doing a commemorative exhibit on Selma, despite the recent major motion picture depicting the events. Adding to the uniqueness of the exhibit are the student written labels for the art, a practice that is not widely celebrated by the art community.
Cartwright expressed great pride in his students’ work on the labels and attributed their unprecedented level of participation to the nature of USD’s galleries and the hands-on experience the students are granted by attending a small school. While he strongly advocated for USD to one day have a stand-alone museum, he was firm in his belief in the special value of the current art programs.
“Yale, Berkley, they have wonderful on-campus, stand-alone museums,” Cartwright said. “But I can guarantee you that they aren’t letting 19-year-olds write the labels.”
Cartwright hopes that people will continue to take advantage of the free galleries, and learn to appreciate art and its value in a world that is continually devaluing it. He is dedicated to elevating the level of work shown and to bringing lively, engaging exhibits to campus.
“Art changes your angle on the world,” Cartwright said. “If we’re creating a space where people can come and have discussions, disagree, and work things out, then I’m doing my job.”