If you go

WHAT: “Witness to History,” the photographs of James KaralesWHEN: Through May 12WHERE: Gibbes Museum of Art, 135 Meeting St.COST: $9 adults; $7 seniors, students, military; $5 children 6-12; free for members and children under 6MORE INFO: www.gibbesmuseum.org or 722-2706

It was a period of acute activism and resistance, punctuated by white violence throughout the recalcitrant South.

It was dramatized by a media establishment suddenly captivated by the arguments and efforts of blacks (and some whites) outraged by the various manifestations of racism in America and increasingly willing to confront injustice head-on.

The civil rights movement, generally conceived as the period from the 1954 Brown v. Board decision to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and associated closely with the work of Martin Luther King Jr., was only a particularly well-publicized part of a much larger effort that began with early resistance to chattel slavery and continues today.

The movement experienced a watershed moment in 1960, when thousands of high school and college students confronted Jim Crow at lunch counters across the South. The sit-ins, which began in Greensboro, N.C., captured the public imagination and inspired masses of young people to brave the bullies and fire hoses.

The demographic change had broad repercussions. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was formed in April 1960. The Freedom Rides were organized primarily by the Congress on Racial Equality the following year. Students and others purposefully violated state segregation laws along interstate highways in an effort to force the federal government to step in on constitutional grounds.

Voter registration drives in Mississippi and Alabama occasionally were interrupted by mass marches and rallies, such as the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March for Voting Rights.

For magazines, newspapers and television networks, the race beat, as it became known, suddenly was desirable. This was a war of sorts with a front line, heroes, moral claim and series of actions, many life-threatening, that made for good copy — and revealed something about the American soul.

Documentarian

James Karales was an obscure photographer before the 1960s, assisting W. Eugene Smith and pursuing his own projects, including a 1956 series representing Rendville, Ohio, a former coal mining town that, late in the 19th century, employed blacks and immigrants who worked side by side and were paid the same wage.

In 1957, Edward Steichen purchased a couple of Karales’ Rendville photographs for the Museum of Modern Art.

The following year, Helen Gee exhibited the Rendville photographs at the Limelight Gallery in Greenwich Village. The attention that ensued landed Karales a job as staff photographer for the magazine Look.

The pictures he made for the magazine, iconic images of King with his family, SNCC activities and the seminal Selma march, are on display at the Gibbes Museum in a special exhibition called “Witness to History” that opened Friday and runs through May 12. The show coincides with the King holiday and its related events, as well as with the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued Jan. 1, 1863.

Karales died in 2002, and his photographic legacy is in the hands of his wife, Monica Karales, who worked closely with the Gibbes on the current show.

His pictures also are represented by the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York City, and the negatives, vintage prints and some unpublished works are housed at the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University.

Today, Karales is considered one of the most important documentarians of the mid-20th century.

His most famous photograph, which features marchers on their way to Montgomery, Ala., shot from the bottom of a bluff as a storm cloud gathered above, is one of the greatest and most recognizable images of that period.

It is great not only for the historical moment it captures but because of the composition, wide-angle distortion, dramatic effect and represented motion. Notice the three marchers in lock-step at the front of the procession, each wearing white shirts and dark pants; notice the small space Karales makes sure to include just before them, to lend the photo a stronger sense of movement and direction. Notice how the eye is torn between two focal points: the tall, dark man wearing a hat and the billowing cloud, a juxtaposition of man and nature, of intent and chance, of the way history both makes us and is made by us.

Observe the American flag at dead-center, pointing to the darkest part of the storm cloud. Finally, note the moral weight of the picture, achieved in part because Karales knew to shuffle down the hill and shoot the marchers from below, making them appear especially purposeful. The line of protesters recedes far into the distance, beyond the view of the camera, suggesting the force of numbers and impact of time.

Innocence lost

An early assignment for Look magazine took Karales to Atlanta in 1960, when members of the SNCC were conducting passive-resistance training. These are troubling images. Young activists were being conditioned to receive the imminent blows of their opponents: policemen and white supremacists hell-bent on preserving segregation.

These were mostly young volunteers and students inspired by the sit-ins to participate in nonviolent direct action. Very soon, they would canvass rural Mississippi and Alabama to get blacks registered to vote, operating under the leadership of John Lewis, James Farmer, Bob Moses and others.

Those efforts would culminate with the Mississippi Summer Project, or “Freedom Summer,” of 1964, a mass deployment of volunteers, many of whom were white. It was an event that led to the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and a direct challenge at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J., that year.

The SNCC, armed with boxes of evidence of voter suppression and other wrongdoing, argued that the seated Democratic delegates to the convention from Mississippi should be thrown out. The argument gained traction, so much so that President Lyndon Johnson, afraid to lose the support of Southern whites, sent Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale to run interference and propose a compromise, effectively scuttling the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s efforts and betraying the very notion of democracy.

The defeat of the Freedom Democratic Party helped change the dynamic of the civil rights movement. Suddenly, those who had advocated a “black power” agenda of self-determination and identity politics were gaining sympathy among movement participants. The system no longer could be trusted to advance the cause, many insisted. It would be up to black people to find alternative ways to share political and economic power.

It was this relatively innocent period of the movement — the first-half of the 1960s, when idealistic college students joined with clergy and a number of older activists like Fannie Lou Hamer and Rosa Parks — that Karales documented so beautifully in these photographs.

With King

In 1962 and 1963, Karales was granted unprecedented access to Martin Luther King and his family. The resulting photo essay offered Americans an intimate view into the domestic life of this famous public figure previously known mostly for his uplifting rhetoric, moral dignity and street cred. But here was a family man who embraced his children with fervor, enjoyed a cup of tea with his wife and knew how to relax.

Other images made during this period include King’s appearances at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., with such figures as Rosa Parks and C.T. Vivian; an amazing picture of King Jr. and his father together at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta; a shot of King walking through an airport; a photo of King with baseball great Jackie Robinson at L.R. Hall Auditorium in Birmingham; and pictures of confrontations with police in the streets of that city.

Look magazine had assigned Karales to cover clergy participation in the movement; somehow, the photographer managed to gain intimate access and shoot some of the most memorable pictures of the time.??On May 18, 1965, soon after the conclusion of the Selma-Montgomery march, Look published some of Karales’ pictures accompanying an article called “Our Churches’ Sin Against the Negro” by Robert W. Spike. Thus, these images were burnished into the collective consciousness of America. Thus, they were immortalized.

Now they are on the walls of the Gibbes, for all to see.

Adam Parker is working on a biography of civil rights activist Cleveland Sellers. Reach him at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.