‘We’re just getting started’
New SCLC exhibit proves ‘The Struggle Continues’
ATLANTA – More than 350 people attended the opening reception of the exhibit, “And the Struggle Continues: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Fight for Social Change” at Emory University last Friday evening.
The exhibit, at the Woodruff Library’s Schatten Gallery, features photos and paraphernalia from the SCLC following the death of its first leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in 1968.
The mood was light as SCLC veterans joked about the work they did.
“We wanted white people to be as free as we were to be able to sit on the back of the bus,” SCLC board chair Bernard Lafayette said with a laugh.
U.S. Congressman John Lewis, who was 22 when he joined the SCLC board in 1962, continued the revelry when he joked: “Walking into this exhibit reminded me of a time when I was very young and had all my hair.”
But the evening obviously had its serious moments.
SCLC chief executive Dr. Charles Steele Jr., who joined the group after 1968, said: “Many people made the supreme sacrifice for us to be here today – they gave their lives… We came here today to tell you the struggle is not over, we’re just getting started.”
The exhibit starts with a “Hall of Luminaries,” with photos of SCLC leaders in earlier years. It then opens to a gallery of enlarged action shots, posters and letters from SCLC campaigns and programs, including: the Poor People’s campaign of 1968, the Charleston Hospital Workers’ Strike of 1969 and marches to save the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Seeing the photos of people marching and singing, former SCLC executive Dorothy Cotton noted how important music was to the movement, even persuading audience members to sing a few “freedom songs” with her.
Steele agreed, noting: “That kind of musical inspiration is missing today because we don’t have the entertainers getting involved the way Dr. King had people like Mahalia Jackson, Sammy Davis Jr., and Harry Belafonte. They weren’t afraid to be a part of the movement.”
During the program, about 25 Emory students stood in silent protest with signs calling for the resignation of Emory President Jim Wagner’s resignation. Wagner recently wrote an article arguing that the “Three-Fifths Compromise,” where slaves were officially counted as three-fifths of a person, was a good model of political compromise.
Lafayette acknowledged the protesters cause, saying: “Indeed, the struggle continues.”
Wagner did not respond directly to the protestors but said: “This exhibit shows how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. Emory still has a way to go…as our country still has a way to go.”
Exhibit curator Carol Anderson said her committee wanted to create the exhibit because the cause of the 1960s is, in many ways, the cause of today.
“We realized there was something there that speaks to so many issues in American society right now,” said Anderson, an Emory associate professor of African American Studies. “The enormous human rights issues the SCLC took on in this exhibit are still the same issues we’re dealing with today.”
Anderson squealed with delight when Cotton made a surprise announcement that she would donate her historic SCLC papers to Emory University collection.
And SCLC photographer Wendell Rogers said he was delighted to see the work of black photographers on display.
“Black photographers are the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement because many put their lives on the line – not for pay, but for the love of telling the story,” said Rogers whose photos are among those on display.
SCLC members, meanwhile, said the exhibit inspires them to “keep on keepin’ on.”
“It shows that even with the problems we’ve had, the SCLC is still a vital organization,” said Brenda Davenport, who was the youngest SCLC board member when she joined in the late 1970s at age 15.
Rev. Fred Taylor, former SCLC Director of Direct Action, added: “It shows the dream did not die with the assassin’s bullet that took Dr. King’s life.”
Lewis agreed, adding: “President Obama’s election is not the fulfillment of King’s dream, but a down payment. The struggle continues.”