Jackson State lynching exhibit seeks to engage campus, community in dialogue about history
By Keonya Booker
Members of Jackson State University’s campus and greater Mississippi community are attempting to enlighten and educate one another about an appalling time in Black history and, subsequently, ensure such a horrendous history does not recur.
“Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America,” a collection of powerful, graphic images of lynchings from the late 1800s until the late 1960s, is currently on display at the historically Black university. The photos paint a harrowing picture of extreme social injustice and hate experienced by Blacks from the end of the Civil War until the end of the organized civil rights movement of the mid-20th century. It is a reminder of the struggles Blacks have faced and continue to confront moving into the 21st century.
The collection has a peculiar resonance in Mississippi, which is traditionally regarded as a hotbed of racial discrimination and violence in the 1960s, and associated with painful images of the murders of activist Medgar Evers, teenager Emmett Till and three civil rights workers.
“Mississippi is infamous with the worst reputation for civil injustices and racial violence against African Americans. If seen anywhere in the world, “Without Sanctuary” needed to be seen in Mississippi,” says Dr. Monique Guillory, who works in Jackson State’s Office of the President and who assisted in the planning of the exhibit.
According to the exhibit’s planning committee, which included Jackson State faculty and staff, members of the governor’s office and media representatives, the primary vision of “Without Sanctuary” is to underscore the terror and fear of this brutal, historical period. The committee also hoped to provide an opportunity for people to discuss and converse about these images and the larger impact they have had on the Black community.
“The objective was to have a dialogue along with the exhibition — a space where people could talk honestly and candidly. So far, there is no public acknowledgement or discussion about the wrongs against African Americans,” Guillory says.
In addition to the extensive compilation of lynching photos, “Without Sanctuary” is a part of a larger experience that includes a film series, panel discussions and town hall meetings. Over the past few months, representatives from local media outlets have participated in several group discussions and community meetings. Panel sessions also have featured descendants of anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells, prominent community leaders and activists, as well as James Allen, the owner of the collection.
Allen, who is also editor of the book, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, encountered difficulty securing a venue for his collection. Initially, because of its graphic images and sensitive nature, it was not well received in the South. For this reason, he unveiled it first in New York and, then, in Pittsburgh. In 2002, Atlanta’s Emory University, in conjunction with the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, presented the exhibit. Atlanta, much like Jackson, has a history of racial unrest and violence that made it a fitting place for such an exhibition.
Still, Jackson State was not immune to issues of controversy regarding the placement of the exhibit on its campus.
“Before we even opened we had some people with reservations but, once it opened, people got in to it. There is power in facing (the images). We had a lot of converts. People, who wouldn’t normally be associated with it, did associate,” Guillory says.
Opportunities for community involvement ranged from volunteer facilitators in dialogue sessions to informal public relations specialists, enlightening others in the community about the importance of the collection.
“Many of our visitors have thanked us for the courage of bringing this to Jackson State University and to Mississippi,” says Anthony Dean, director of communications for Jackson State. “A visitor told me, despite the difficulty of seeing the exhibit and reliving apart of his past, he commended the university for preserving our history in a very positive way.”
Students at Jackson State have been as involved in the exhibit as members of the external community. Faculty and staff have incorporated the collection and accompanying dialogue sessions into everyday teaching and learning opportunities.
“Students are really trying to make sense of what they are seeing,” says Dr. Mary Coleman, professor of political science at Jackson State and a member of the planning committee. “As faculty, we are ensuring they have access to as much as they can — whether it is by offering thoughtful courses, symposia, readings, or by discussing their own worries about this historical legacy.”
The exhibit, which runs until early July, will conclude with a conference co-sponsored by Jackson State and Tulane universities.
For more information on the collection, visit the Web site <www.withoutsanctuary.org>.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com