VCU unveils rare collection of Va. civil rights protest photos

Freedom Now Project asks for the public's help in learning details about people, protests

4/8/2014, 1:13 p.m.
Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) is hoping for the public's help in shedding new light on a pivotal moment in the ...
The project's aim is to provide insight into the experience of nonviolent civil dissent.

The photos show a variety of protests, led by The Rev. L Francis Griffin, pastor of First Baptist Church, that were part of a "Program of Action" undertaken by the African-American community to decry the discriminatory practices at local businesses and churches and Prince Edward County’s four-year closure of public schools in defiance of court-ordered desegregation.

Protesters attempted sit-ins at several lunch counters, but were not always seated. On one occasion protesters were seated at the J.J. Newberry's counter and served coffee – which they discovered was filled with salt.

In another set of the photos, the protesters demonstrate outside of the whites-only State Theater. Under a marquee advertising movies such as "The Young Racers," "Call Me Bwana" and "King Kong vs. Godzilla," a circle of African-American protesters would approach the window, one by one, ask to buy a ticket, be refused, and then the next person would try. They would repeat the cycle over and over again.

In the State Theater photos, several protesters can be seen wearing white buttons advertising the March on Washington that would be held in less than two weeks on Aug. 28, 1963.

A number of photos show a protest outside of Farmville's Safeway and Grants department store, as the businesses would not hire African-Americans.

"It wasn't that African-Americans couldn't go in, it was that they couldn't work there. And so all the money that the community earned was spent at stores where they couldn't work," Campbell said. "At the department stores, if you were African-American, you couldn't try on clothes before you bought them – and you couldn't return them if they didn't fit. And so they had at least one event where they had a 'try-in,' in which they went inside and tried on clothes."

In many of the photos, the protesters are picketing outside the Prince Edward County courthouse. In several others, the protesters are lined up outside the College Shoppe lunch counter after being refused entry.

"They're seated outside, and if you look, you can see all the people inside looking out [at the protesters]," Campbell said.

Little is known about the people or the protest depicted in one series of photographs, Campbell said, though she is hoping the public can provide details.

Each image in the Freedom Now Project is accompanied by a brief description. Many have links to supplemental materials that will enrich viewers' experience, such as newspaper articles and documents from 1963, videos of freedom songs and even an image of the button worn by protesters at the State Theater. Visitors to the website will also find links to Google Street View so they can compare Farmville then and now.

The Freedom Now Project not only tells an important story of the civil rights movement, Campbell said, it also conveys what it feels like to stand up against authority in the face of injustice.

"As we move through the photographs we see the events unfolding in time, but the real story – to my eye anyway – is about the people and relationships that are captured by the camera: the relationships among the demonstrators; their relationships with onlookers and shoppers, business owners and employees; and above all, protesters' relationship to the camera," she said.