In the summer of 1964, a thin, bespectacled Yale University student named Joel Katz plunged himself, with notebook and camera in hand, into the violence of the civil rights movement in Mississippi.
It was “Freedom Summer,” and armies of college students and civil rights workers — Katz included — descended into the Jim Crow South. “The fact that I was down there hanging out with African Americans and civil rights workers, being a Northern agitator, being Jewish was icing on the cake,” laughed Katz in reflection of his seven-week stay. “I had plenty going for me.”
Katz, then a 21-year-old design student, took the long bus ride from his home in Hartford, Conn., to Jackson, Miss., to spend the summer photographing and writing about the people of Mississippi. It was a raw and uncertain time when three young civil rights workers were murdered in Philadelphia, Miss.; when the young preacher Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy stumped through Jackson, the state capital, risking their lives with every speech. Katz, like many of his fellow college students who had descended on the area, drew the support of residents — and ire of authority.
“I was harassed by the Jackson police,” Katz said. “We would run into people on the street that would ask if I wanted to die, because they would be happy to kill me. When I was living at the Freedom House in Vicksburg, we kept a 24-hour watch on the street surrounding the area.”
The black-and-white photographs taken by Katz at what turned out to be the height of the civil rights movement are riveting and make up a powerful collection that earned him the Strong Prize for American Literature Prize while at Yale. The Philadelphia-based designer has not been back to Mississippi since that fateful time, but has fond memories of the people he sought to serve five decades ago.
“I will never forget the way the Black people who lived there responded to me,” Katz said. “In other words, we could drive along the highway and see people working in the fields, and we would wave and they would wave back. It was not a transaction that your average white Mississippian would be involved in. I spent nights in homes on farms. There was such an outpouring of generosity, and these people knew that we would go back to school at the end of summer, and they were going to stay there, and if there was any retribution by the white community, it was going to fall on them, not us. So, I regard the people that live there as extremely brave, and certainly at least as brave as we were for coming down because we were going back home.”
The Galleries at Moore will host the “Joel Katz: And I Said No Lord” exhibition of black-and-white photographs through March 15. Katz, an information designer, photographer, author and teacher, will attend an event reception this evening at 5:30 p.m. The Galleries at Moore, located 1916 Race St., are free and open to the public. For more information call (215) 965-4027 or visit www.thegalleriesatmoore.org.