Freedom on Film

A picture, as the saying goes, speaks a thousand words. Sometimes the same is true of reactions to pictures, like the brief notes written in the visitors' book at Jill Freedman's exhibition of photographs, Resurrection City: A Look Back, currently at the Miami-Dade Public Library.

"I'm very sad how whites treated blacks and know I'm crying in sorro [sic]." "The first time in my life I saw photographs that say so much." "Powerful to many of us who are poor but also wealthy. Thank you."

In 1968 Freedman, then a fledgling photographer in New York City, traveled to Washington, D.C., for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign. "I saw this jive talkin' dude in Central Park wearing a straw hat and overalls with a mule," recalls Freedman, a petite blonde now in her fifties. "He said, 'Come on, we're going to Washington.' I had to see what was going on." She got on the bus with her camera and headed toward Resurrection City, an encampment on the Washington Mall made of plywood lean-tos, created after MLK's assassination in accordance with his plans. It was the last act of the Poor People's Campaign, an ardent reclamation of every American's right to his twenty acres and a mule -- to food, shelter, and a job. "We are going to Washington, D.C., the seat of government," King said just before his death, "and engage in direct action for days and days, weeks and weeks, and months and months if necessary, in order to say to this nation that you must provide us with jobs or income."

The Washington demonstration lasted for six rainy weeks that spring. Hundreds of people lived in the muddy, flimsy shacks to protest similarly squalid conditions throughout the country. Particularly in the South. Particularly among blacks. Some called it Dream City. "We were all there," Freedman says. "It was the whole world, every kind of humanity. A real city."

Freedman's moving images capture bearded old men and tiny babies, Black Panthers, and embracing young couples. A black boy and a white girl swing on a tire in front of a lean-to painted with the words "Nothing But Soul." Shacks were set up in rows, like streets, and decorated with rag curtains, painted slogans, and the occasional TV. At night the photos show the city sleeping under the lights of the Washington Monument. "We used to call the monument the klansman," Freedman recalls. "Because at night it has those two eyes."

In one of Freedman's favorite photos, a group of tough-looking guys with conked hair, dark sunglasses, and earrings, protectively escort an elderly woman past a line of stonefaced police officers holding billy clubs. "We demonstrated every day, that was our work, and at some point some of the cops went after us and hit some people," says Freedman, who calls the picture "Hands Like Shawls." "These guys came and said, 'It's okay, grandma, walk with us.'"

Some of Freedman's photographs were published in Life magazine, and in 1970 were collected in a now out-of-print book, Old News: Resurrection City, with accompanying text by the photographer. She has never exhibited the pictures before. On a recent visit to the show, she greets the 70 images like old friends. "There's Uncle Natural, and Granny -- just look at that face." Freedman breaks out in a gospel spiritual and wistfully wonders aloud what has become of her fellow soldiers for social change. "I have a fantasy that someone who was there who lives here now would come and see the show," she says.

Meanwhile she talks to others viewing the show. This afternoon they include a law student, who Freedman encourages to get involved with political causes, or even start his own movement. "A poor people's campaign," he muses. "That sounds like something we could use here in Miami, Florida."

-- Judy Cantor

Resurrection City: A Look Back, Photographs by Jill Freedman, runs through April 1 at the Miami-Dade Public Library, 101 W Flagler St. Admission is free. Call 305-375-2665.

 
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