The last best witness

One of the most powerful images in "The Movement," the NSU Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale photography exhibition about the Civil Rights Era, shows a group of demonstrators being assaulted with fire hoses at Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Ala., on May 3, 1963. The terror in the scene is made even more compelling with the realization that most of the demonstrators are children.

But, behind a tree, there was a witness. And he had a camera.

"Doc had told us, 'We have plenty of demonstrators. We need photographs,'" says Bob Adelman, using the nickname he had for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "Birmingham was a turning point. It forced [President] Kennedy to say this is wrong and we must stop it. No president had ever said that before."

Miami Beach resident Adelman, 83, is perhaps the last best witness to the Civil Rights Era. He's an articulate, art-school-trained photographer who, while working for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and becoming a King confidant, used his camera to document the struggle against segregation from the inside out.

Opening Sunday, Jan. 19, "The Movement: Bob Adelman and Civil Rights Era Photography," offers pictures taken from 1963 to 1968, when Adelman's CORE connections got him into King's inner circle and his white skin gave him a pass to witness scenes of astonishing brutality.

Timed to Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, the exhibition is divided to address two themes: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The former features a section on the Birmingham protest, including a main photo, titled "Unified Resistance," and a large blowup of a contact sheet of Adelman's images from that day.

"There is a stronger narrative than just seeing the iconic images," museum director Bonnie Clearwater says of the exhibit. "It's cinematic."

Clearwater points out that Nova Southeastern University, which includes the museum, was founded the same year as the Civil Rights Act, and "The Movement" will be the subject of a variety of NSU lectures, performances and other events.

Adelman, who says the museum has become "a photo hot spot," is scheduled to lead a discussion there on Feb. 1, and Clearwater says the museum is providing bus transportation to parents and children "from all over" to Family Day events on Feb. 8.

Clearwater believes an exhibit like "The Movement" is a key piece of a larger puzzle.

"It really has a way of making the museum a focal point for discussion, for expanding perspectives, bringing people together," she says.

Adelman was a left-leaning New Yorker working on a doctorate in philosophy at Columbia University and developing a photography career under the tutelage of famed Harper's Bazaar magazine art director Alexey Brodovitch when he agreed to moonlight as a photographer for CORE. The pay: $5, if they liked the picture.

"I was working on my Ph.D, but I knew I didn't want to spend my life teaching," recalls Adelman, whose work has been the subject of more than a dozen books and been published in Esquire, Time, Life, The New York Times Magazine and Paris Match. "I wanted to be more involved in the world, but I didn't know how."

"The Movement" includes pictures Adelman took during his first trip to the South, a voter-registration effort in Sumter, S.C. It was there that he first witnessed "the organized system of terror" that gripped the region.

Adelman later spent weeks with a Louisiana preacher as he attempted to register to vote (he was turned away five times), and the day he was successful ended with the man photographed standing vigil under a porch light with a rifle in his hands as the Ku Klux Klan passed by.

"After he registered, I spent three days with him. I was trying to figure out where he got the courage and determination," Adelman says. "I still have a lot of emotion about it."

As the anti-segregation movement evolved, Adelman grew closer to King, a relationship illustrated most vividly in an iconic picture of the preacher taken during the 1963 March on Washington, a print of which hangs over the mantel in his living room.

While press photographers were restricted to certain areas on the Washington Mall, Adelman was just seven or eight feet away from King, close enough to hear gospel singer Mahalia Jackson urge King to go off script during his now-famous speech in front of 250,000 people.

"She called out to him, 'Tell 'em the dream!' Which changed the speech at the March on Washington," Adelman says. "He was reading a prepared speech, and he then stopped and spoke extemporaneously. The 'Dream' speech is extemporaneous. Can you imagine?"

Museum curator Peter Boswell was looking through Adelman's pictures in preparation for "The Movement" when he came across an image that startled him: a close-up of King in his casket.

"It was something I'd never seen before," Boswell recalls. "I knew it had to be in the show."

Adelman says that for a long time he kept the image in a drawer, thinking it might be too disturbing. But he thinks it's now a powerful reminder of the kind of sacrifice that is in short supply these days. King, he says, had seen what the country was capable of, the good and the evil.

"He was always looking around," Adelman says. "He knew something was coming. He was a very courageous man."

bcrandell@southflorida.com

The Movement: Bob Adelman and Civil Rights Era Photography

When: Jan. 19-May 17. Museum hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday, Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Bob Adelman will lead a discussion of the exhibit 2-4 p.m. Feb. 1.

Where: NSU Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas. Blvd.

Cost: $10, $7 seniors and military, $5 students, 12 or younger free

Contact: Call 954-525-5500 or go to MOAFL.org