Voting, then and now: Photo exhibit examines the barriers to voting in 1965 and 2020

  • Leonard McCloud, an organizer for Mississippi MOVE, encourages people in the state capital of Jackson to vote on Primary Day in March.  Photo courtesy of Jim Lemkin

  • Floree Smith, now 97, was a civil rights activist in southern Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s and says whites would once threaten African Americans who tried to register to vote.  Photo courtesy of Jim Lemkin

  • Anthony Witherspoon, mayor of the town of Magnolia, Mississippi, says the state must allow ex-felons, or “returning citizens,” to vote. “I’m for full restoration of your rights after your time is served,” he says. Photo courtesy of Jim Lemkin

  • Primary Day in Jackson, Mississippi in March, where patrons of Johnny T’s bistro celebrate Joe Biden’s overwhelming win in the Democratic race. Photo courtesy of Jim Lemkin

  • Brother Hollis Watkins, a longtime civil rights activist in Jackson, Mississippi, once spent 34 days in jail for trying to buy a cup of coffee at a “whites only” lunch counter. Photo courtesy of Jim Lemkin

  • A federal agent enrolls an elderly African-American man to vote in Mississippi as a young boy looks on in the winter of 1965-1966. Photo courtesy of Jim Lemkin

  • A college student from New York — part of the group Jim Lemkin was part of — talks to an African-American family in Mississippi about registering to vote in late 1965/early 1966.  Photo courtesy of Jim Lemkin

  • This hamburger stand in Mississippi was still segregated in late 1965/early 1966, more than a year after the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 had officially outlawed segregation.  Photo courtesy of Jim Lemkin

Staff Writer
Published: 8/25/2020 12:40:53 PM

Almost 55 years ago, Jim Lemkin, then a 19-year-old college student in New York state, joined several other white college students for a month-long trip in rural Mississippi to help African Americans register to vote. It was just months after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discriminatory practices that had kept Blacks disenfranchised across the South for decades.

It was no easy time for a Northerner to be in Mississippi. In the summer of 1964, three young civil rights workers, including two from New York — Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — had been murdered there by the Ku Klux Klan and local law enforcement. Their partner, James Chaney, a young African-American from Mississippi, had been killed alongside them — one of countless Blacks across the South who were beaten, shot at, jailed or had their homes bombed or torched as they pushed for voting rights and an end to segregation.

But Lemkin, who today is 73 and lives in Haydenville, came through fine what was called “Mississippi Freedom Christmas” — he and other college students were in the state from mid-December 1965 to mid-January 1966 — and he documented much of his experience with black and white photographs that he since has used to make public presentations about voting rights.

Now he’s added a new wrinkle: He returned to southern Mississippi this past March to talk to African Americans about the barriers to voting today, again documenting the experience with his camera.

Using a mix of “then and now” photographs and text based on interviews with people be met, Lemkin will present his exhibit “Does My Vote Count?” at Northampton’s A.P.E. Gallery beginning Friday, Sept. 4. That’s the day A.P.E. will open its doors to visitors for the first time since the pandemic arrived in March, though various safety protocols will be in place, including limiting visitation to eight people at a time.

In a recent phone interview, Lemkin said he has been concerned about new methods of voter suppression that have cropped up in numerous states since 2013, after the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, threw out a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. States were given renewed permission to set their own regulations, and a host of new provisions — voter I.D. laws, reduced early voting opportunities, closed polling stations, disenfranchisement of ex-felons — have now been put in place, overwhelmingly in states with Republican governors and legislative majorities.

Lemkin says these voter suppression efforts have been aimed disproportionately at people of color, the poor, the disadvantaged and students. But if much of that is coming from Republican states at the moment, Lemkin notes that Democrats and Republicans have been “equal opportunity oppressors” over the years (the Deep South states were all controlled by Democrats in the days of segregation).

“This is more of an issue of morality,” he said. “Voter suppression, wherever it comes from, strikes right at the heart of our democracy. We need to cultivate compassion for all people and get away from this pendulum effect based on which party has the upper hand ... The question really is, where do we live in our hearts?”

Counting grains of sand

Lemkin’s photographs from 1965 offer a vivid contrast to his more recent ones, and not just because of the difference between black-and-white and color images. Lemkin and his fellow volunteers visited some African Americans living in serious rural poverty. In one shot, 11 adults and children are shown on a rickety porch that’s propped up on its corners by large rocks; the home’s outside consists of unpainted wood boards.

And more than a year after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which struck down segregation in stores, bus depots and other facilities, another photo shows a burger stand with two serving windows: one for one whites, and another for “colored.”

Lemkin’s newer photos, which he took with an iPhone, are accompanied by quotes that come from video interviews he did with African Americans he met during his March visit.

“I had a lot of help from groups like Mississippi NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center and others that made introductions for me,” he said. “It took weeks of phone calls to set it all up, but I met a great range of people, including older voters who’d first been able to vote” after passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Brother Hollis Watkins, for instance, a veteran civil rights activist in Jackson, the Mississippi capital, recalls spending 34 days in jail after attempting to buy a cup of coffee at a “whites only” lunch counter. He says election officials would deny Blacks voting rights through any number of means, such as “ridiculous” tests that required would-be voters to identify how many grains of sand were in a jar.

Voting barriers still exist. Anthony Witherspoon, the mayor of the town of Magnolia, had a stint in jail as a younger man and learned about rules denying the vote to felons and ex-felons; he later successfully challenged the law and regained his right to vote. But he tells Lemkin that many other Mississippi Blacks with prison records — also called “returning citizens”— still don’t have that right.

“If a person has paid their debt to society … they should have a voice in what happens in their lives,” says Witherspoon. “I’m for full restoration of rights after your time is served … or else just say that you sentenced them for life!”

And Leonard McCloud, an organizer for Mississippi MOVE, worries about African Americans he’s spoken to who feel voting never changes anything in their lives, as well as young people who don’t seem to care about the leaders of the civil rights era or voting. “They’re caught up in the fast life,” he says. “I call it the ‘hip hop generation.’”

“I don’t like to mix religion and politics, but God has to be in the picture somewhere!” McCloud adds. “If we don’t do things with our hearts, with compassion, we are not gonna get things done.”

Lemkin says there’s no early voting in Mississippi, a particular hardship for single parents and young people who may have little flexibility to take time off from work to get to the polls. And whites, he says, who vote overwhelming Republican, hold all statewide elected offices, while Blacks, who vote overwhelming Democratic, earn wins predominantly at local and county levels and only in districts with a majority of African-American voters.

Lemkin says he hopes his exhibit can be an inspiration for people to get involved in efforts to fight voter suppression; information on organizations that do that work will be available at A.P.E.

As he writes in an artist’s statement, “If we care about preserving our democracy, isn’t it time we reflect and act on this simple rule: Treat each other as we would like to be treated? Has this perennial ideal that makes for a vitally functioning society fallen woefully by the wayside? Doesn’t true justice begin here?”

For more for information on Lemkin’s project, visit doesmyvoicecount.org. For more information about visiting A.P.E. Gallery, included required safety protocols, visit apearts.org.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

 




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