Miami University’s FotoFocus Show Recalls the Freedom Summer of 1964

Steve Schapiro’s haunting photos document that year’s civil rights warriors who traveled from Oxford, Ohio, to Mississippi to support Black voters.

The FotoFocus Biennial exhibition at Miami University Art Museum, A Lens for Freedom: Civil Rights Photographs by Steve Schapiro, honors what has become one of the prouder moments in school history: hosting the Freedom Summer orientation and training sessions in 1964. Trained volunteers traveled to Mississippi to help Black residents of that segregated state register to vote, set up freedom schools and community libraries, and otherwise become empowered.

“We Shall Overcome (Freedom Summer Bus),” 1964

Partial gift of Stephen Schapiro and partial purchase by Miami University Art Museum with contributions from the Kezur Endowment Fund

Actually, at the time that the Oxford portion of that landmark civil rights event occurred, Miami University wasn’t involved. The sessions were instead hosted by Western College for Women, a separate liberal arts school with religious origins near the Miami campus. It wasn’t until 1974 that Western College became part of Miami University, and its location is now known as the school’s Western Campus. A Miami archivist tends to its memorial archives.

That Miami is so willing to embrace Western’s history as its own says much about what colleges today, and our culture in general, hold in esteem about their past. Especially when that past involves participation in historic anti-racist actions.

Steve Schapiro

Photography by the Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography, Moscow, Russia

In 2019, the Miami University Art Museum acquired, via a combination of gift and purchase, 17 photos and three contact sheets from Schapiro related to civil rights efforts he chronicled in the 1960s. The professional photographer, who died in early 2022, wanted this Freedom Summer-related work placed at a relevant institution. This show (on view through December 10) is the first major exhibition at Miami devoted to the Schapiro acquisition, though some of these images have been displayed there previously.

FotoFocus and Richard and Susan Momeyer financially supported the exhibition and its ancillary programming. Richard, a retired Miami philosophy professor, was a trainer for the Freedom Summer session at the Western College campus. FotoFocus returned this fall for the first time since 2020 with almost 100 photography and lens-based art exhibitions at more than 90 venues in the region.

In recent years, Miami University has been “fully embracing” its indirect role in Freedom Summer, says Jack Green, director and chief curator of the art museum. It’s a “teachable moment” for the school, he explains.

Lens for Freedom chronicles aspects of the Mississippi Freedom Project, which soon became better known as Freedom Summer, for which coordinators from southern civil rights groups trained volunteers on the Oxford campus during two one-week sessions in June 1964. The first week, for which hundred of college students came, prepared participants to help with registering Mississippi’s Black residents to vote. (At least six joined from nearby Antioch College, the progressive and politically active school in Yellow Springs.) The second week, which attracted professionals such as clergy and librarians, taught them to help in the new schools and libraries that would serve those Mississippi residents.

Those opposed to integration in that state fought back against the activists’ efforts by committing one of the shocking and traumatic assassinations that rocked the 1960s: the murder near Philadelphia, Mississippi, of three young men who participated at the first Oxford session. Those martyred were volunteer Andrew Goodman and two staff workers with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), James Chaney, who was Black, and Michael Schwerner, who was white. The culprits were Ku Klux Klan members, some of whom had police connections.

So heinous was the crime that the Schapiro photos in this show directly relating to it are immensely sad and haunting. There is one black-and-white image of 20-year-old Goodman on the Oxford campus in a dark short-sleeve T-shirt with hands on hips, paying attention to a self-defense lesson from James Foreman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Goodman was just days away from his murder.

When the three first went missing in June, Schapiro traveled from Oxford to Mississippi to photograph the wait for news, the search for bodies, and ultimately the ongoing civil rights movement that couldn’t be stopped. He was there to photograph the moment Schwerner’s station wagon was pulled from a swamp. And he observed Cheney’s worried family awaiting news on his fate. (It wasn’t until August until the buried bodies were recovered from an earthen dam by the FBI.)

“Freedom Now,” 1964

Partial gift of Stephen Schapiro and partial purchase by Miami University Art Museum with contributions from the Kezur Endowment Fund

Seeing these images in the museum, as well as other dispatches from Mississippi, communicates the enormity of what was happening that summer. One photograph is of a Black man at a pay telephone, the back of his T-shirt turned to us so we can see the words “Freedom Now” on it. Another shows Schwerner’s determined wife Rita Schwerner, as a CORE worker herself, carrying on work with others in Meridian, Mississippi.

There is also a photograph that well captures the determined anticipation of those training in Oxford just before departing. Called “We Shall Overcome (Freedom Summer Bus),” it shows several southern-bound participants—male and female, Black and white—with hands linked in front of their bus, while others inside look on.

How was Schapiro able to work in dangerous environments in Mississippi without meeting a violent fate? “In some ways Schapiro was partially protected because he was white and had a camera,” says Jason Shaiman, the museum’s exhibitions curator. “He wasn’t voicing his opinions and wasn’t quite seen as what in the South would be referred to as an agitator. Schapiro saw this as a responsibility to document and present what was happening in the South, and he used his known white privilege to be able to go down and photograph and help people to really see what was going on.”

While Miami is now celebrating being the welcoming home, if a step removed, of the crucial Freedom Summer orientation and training, it wasn’t so friendly in 1964. “Miami University was not in favor of it being here, and most people in Oxford were not in favor of the training coming here,” says Shaiman. “Mostly, it was fear of the Klan. From the people I’ve spoken with, it was not the warmest welcome. Basically, Miami and Oxford residents had this thought of We don’t want trouble, so therefore we’re not in favor of you being here.”

Miami’s art museum has now started working on an exhibit for 2024, the 60th anniversary of Freedom Summer. Shaiman says he wants a show featuring work from the four main photographers who chronicled the campaign’s efforts. Besides Schapiro, there were Danny Lyon, Ted Polumbaum, and Herbert Randall; only Lyon and Randall (who is Black) are still alive. A feature film based on Lyon’s series of 1968 photographs depicting American motorcyclists is currently being shot in Cincinnati.

This upcoming show would be the first time, according to Shaiman, that the four’s Freedom Summer work would be shown together. “It’s a huge opportunity for us,” he says.

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