David Lauderdale

‘A lot of fear’: Rare civil rights photos from Mississippi come ‘home’ to Beaufort

Comedian and activist Dick Gregory is escorted from the Neshoba County, Mississippi, Courthouse, where he went to discuss the disappearance of three civil rights workers during Freedom Summer, 1964.
Comedian and activist Dick Gregory is escorted from the Neshoba County, Mississippi, Courthouse, where he went to discuss the disappearance of three civil rights workers during Freedom Summer, 1964. ©1964 James Lucas Estate, All R

Oh, the humanity.

That’s what shows in 50 rarely-seen photographs by the late Jim Lucas now on public display in Beaufort.

Lucas was just a kid, really, when he saw up close through his lenses the human toll of the civil rights movement in the Mississippi heat of Freedom Summer, 1964.

It was a time that “outside agitators” -- humanitarian volunteers and courageous reporters with note pads and television cameras -- stepped into the fray. Some of them did not live to tell the story. But through them the world soon knew of the racial terrorism in the Jim Crow South.

Lucas was not an outside agitator. He was at home. He was a native of Jackson, Mississippi, where he started shooting photographs for the afternoon paper at the age of 14.

In college, he got a summer job as a runner for CBS News, which took him to the heart of the battle. He had the good sense, the artist’s eye and the technical ability to capture history in 35 mm black-and-white still shots.

How they got to Beaufort is a long story.

The exhibit that runs through March 17 at the University of South Carolina Beaufort Performing Arts Center is called “A Past That Won’t Rest.”

These are not the civil rights photos generations have seen: the lunging police dogs in Birmingham, a sit-in at Woolworth’s, or the “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper editor Charles L. Overby reviews what Lucas left us by asking a series of questions:

“Through Jim’s camera lens we feel the palpable tension in the square at Philadelphia, Mississippi, the encouragement and pride of the marchers who rallied to assure that James Meredith’s march would successfully meet its vision, and the heartbreak of a wife and child who have just lost their husband and father due to vitriolic hate.

“Could we imagine the deplorable housing and the abject poverty that many African-Americans in the 20th century were forced to endure and the disgust and sorrow on the face of Robert Kennedy as he toured the Mississippi Delta?

“Do we find some hope in the marches and demonstrations that bring local people out together, black and white, to protest the bombing of a Jewish synagogue, to demand better employment and housing opportunities, and to fortify a movement hard fought and ever at risk?”

It’s a past that won’t rest.

Robert F. Kennedy

In a way, the photographs have come home to Beaufort.

Jim Lucas had served in Vietnam, where he worked with television and movie cameras, and when he got back home he married Jackson native Jane Hearn. He was freelancing in video work, and was working on Jack Nicholson’s film “The Border” when he died in a car crash in 1980.

Jane remarried and carried out a career before retiring to Beaufort about 12 years ago.

She always kept Jim’s file cabinet, filled with negatives, contact sheets, prints and memorabilia.

“I asked him why he kept it, and he always said there was history in the pictures,” Jane said.

His collection was going to the state archives, but Jane wanted to take a careful look at that “history” before parting with it. That’s when she decided she must let the public see it first. This project began in 2012.

Jane was helped by photojournalist Red Morgan in restorative work.

In Beaufort, she was encouraged by writers Teresa Bruce and Mark Shaffer and photographer Gary Geboy.

And with the support of her husband, Terry Stone, and others, she eventually curated a traveling exhibition that premiered in 2014 at the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. It has traveled to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and to the Brown v. Board of Education Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas.

And last year, about 100 of the photographs made up a remarkable book from the University of Mississippi Press: “A Past That Won’t Rest: Images of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi.” Each section of the civil rights movement captured by Jim Lucas -- including the search for three missing civil rights workers in Neshoba County, the Meredith March Against Fear, and U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s visit to the Mississippi Delta -- is accompanied by an essay from a person who has written a book on that topic.

Now the collection has come home to Beaufort.

“Jim’s photographs really do tell the story,” Jane said. “He captured how this struggle affected the people there. We are able through his eyes to see their humanity. You can see the pride that they had.”

Dick Gregory

My favorite picture focuses on body language.

Comedian and activist Dick Gregory is leaving the Neshoba County Courthouse in Philadelphia, Mississippi, escorted by the state Highway Patrol and a deputy who would would later be connected to the murder of three civil rights volunteers.

Their disappearance brought Gregory there. The body language shows the racial tension in a gruesome era that definitely needed to be documented.

Later, Jim Lucas captured authorities bringing the three bodies back to town. One of the men handling the bodies was that same deputy who had assisted in the murders.

He shows us a young Marian Wright Edelman -- today a member of Penn Center’s 1862 Circle -- facing off with U.S. Sen. John Stennis of Mississippi during Kennedy’s poverty tour.

The exhibition in Beaufort will be used as a catalyst for a local conversation this week led by the Diversity Leaders Initiative.

Jane Hearn says the photographs she rescued from the file cabinet are as important today as they were when one appeared in Life magazine on Aug. 14, 1964.

“It is a resource for people to acquaint themselves and realize what the racial struggle means and how many people struggled so much for the right to vote, and educational and economic opportunity, and a decent life,” she said.

“They had to overcome a lot of fear. There was a lot of fear. A lot of white, black and Jewish people paid a big price and sacrificed a lot for us to have the life we do.”

Senior editor David Lauderdale has been a Lowcountry journalist for more than 40 years. He oversees the editorial page, writes opinion, and tells the stories of our community. His columns have twice won McClatchy’s President’s Award. He grew up in Atlanta, but Hilton Head Island is home.
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