When I was younger, I used to watch old black and white television shows on Nick at Nite and other channels. After watching the shows, I used to think that people, before the advent of color television or even technicolor, saw only in black and white. I used to think that what they saw through their eyes consisted of only two colors and shades in between. Thinking back on this, the idea that people only saw in black and white created within my mind a distance, a distance that created the period of these television shows or movies as bygone eras, eras far removed from my birth in 1978.
Whenever we see images from the Civil Rights era, only about 50 years ago, we continually see them depicted in black and white, giving them a distance from our current moment. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. I saw the iconic photograph of Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, and Juanita Abernathy pointing in the direction of the gunshot as Rev. Ralph Abernathy knelt beside King in black and white, rarely, if ever, in color. King’s assassination occurred ten years before my entrance into the world. At that time, networks had been airing color television shows since about 1954. Yet, the majority of the images we see from the era are not in color, they are in black in white.
The black and white nature of the photographs, while powerful, create within us a temporal distance, situating the events in a far distant past, far removed from the present. When we break down the generational links to the past and use seventy as the average life span of an individual, we are barely one generation removed from the Civil Rights era. We are two to three removed from Jim Crow and segregation. We are four to five removed from Reconstruction and enslavement. This means that individuals who lived through or came of age during the Civil Rights era are still alive. James Meredith, the man who integrated Ole Miss, is 87. Ruby Bridges, who as a girl integrated New Orleans public schools, is 65. John Lewis was 80 when he passed.
After she read John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell’s March, my wife thought about the moment when the Freedom Riders entered Montgomery, AL, on May 19, 1961, and…