When Nina Simone released “Mississippi Goddam” in 1964, the Alabama she sang about was, specifically, Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church — the church that became a rallying point for the Civil Rights Movement, the church nearly destroyed by fifteen sticks of dynamite planted by four Ku Klux Klansmen. Four girls, none older than 14, were killed in the explosion. 22 other people were injured. It was September 15, 1963, just 11 days after schools in Birmingham started the process of racial integration for the first time.
The truth is that the deaths of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair were not the beginning or the end of a violent movement against their right to exist — merely its midpoint. The murder of innocent black children and adults didn’t start that day, and didn’t end either — not even in churches, not even later that day, when two boys, 16-year-old Johnny Robinson and 13-year-old Virgil Ware, were shot in Birmingham.
As a child, photographer (and MacArthur “Genius Grant” winner) Dawoud Bey pored over Lorraine Hansberry’s book The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality; a photograph of an injured survivor of the bombing — Sarah Collins, whose sister was killed — seared itself on his memory. It would later become the impetus for The Birmingham Project, Bey’s 2013 commemoration of the tragedy’s 50th anniversary.
Bey’s black-and-white portraits — presented as thirteen diptychs — show children the same age as the four girls and two boys who died in 1963, alongside adults who, in 2013, were the same age that the kids would have been. The subjects are Birmingham residents, and many of the adults were close to the bombing in some way: some lived nearby, or knew a victim; all remember it. The Birmingham Project debuted with an accompanying video at the Birmingham Museum of Art (where about half the photos were taken; the other half were snapped at the 16th Street Baptist Church), and is currently on view at The Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum-Florida International University. Even without the video, the photographs are striking.
They’re nearly life-sized, and have a plain quality (stoic faces, straightforward poses) that engenders an equally plain acknowledgment: they’re alive. For all our human suffering and pleasure, we’re never more alive, perhaps, than when we’re just sitting, a little bored. You can really feel this in the images of the children, who have the kind of pubescent awkwardness that’s never charming to oneself, only to everyone else, and the effect is painful. It hurts because those Birmingham girls, often commemorated in what look like class portraits, could have been goofy, self-conscious, bookish, or disobedient. Maybe they didn’t even want to go to church that day; maybe one had a sore throat. They were kids.
So are Bey’s sitters: A teenaged subject named Matthew Lundy is handsome, but hasn’t quite grown into his own head yet; a bespectacled girl named Faith Speights and a pouty-mouthed boy named Tyler Collins both still look like babies. Bey is an excellent portraitist, nuanced enough to make every detail striking — bracelets, hats, the church’s preternatural light — even in reference to the subjects’ already compelling faces. The adults seem regal or, next to the kids, supremely comfortable in their own bodies. Think of the lives the victims could’ve had, they seem to say, if they’d had the opportunity to live. Maybe they, too, would’ve had time for their hair to gray and their gazes to soften. I think of Trayvon Martin, who wanted to be an aeronautical engineer, who didn’t have a chance to change his mind about it, whose life was valuable even if he’d grown up into something else. Tamir Rice liked toy pellet guns and, maybe one day, would’ve found them boring.
The Birmingham victims “exist largely in small photographs or in the imagination,” Bey said in an interview about the project. “It’s a very different … somewhat abstract experience from actually seeing a young person who’s 11 years old.” Post-tragedy, the dead become timeless, and it takes imagination to remember their unlived lives. Bey is imaginative, and knows his subjects are too — that they live in the aftermath, but shouldn’t have to. Ironically, through his empathetic images, the children lost on September 15th are no longer images: they’re part of a community that includes these subjects, who look back at us, their own passages through time made permanent. They are not displayed in memoriam. They’re full of life.
Dawoud Bey: The Birmingham Project continues at The Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University (10975 SW 17th St, Miami) until March 18.