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This exhibit connects past and present with photos of the 1960s civil rights movement

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"I Am a Man," the title for the Center for the Study of the American South’s next photography exhibit, is named after the phrase popularized by the famous sanitation strike in Memphis, Tenn. in 1968. 

The exhibit shows the events leading up to Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. "I Am a Man" references the strike's motto in the famous protest leading up to King's assassination. 

CSAS collected photographs from all over the South that showcases the Civil Rights Movement, specifically in the 1960s. With over 7,000 photographs collected originally for the "I Am a Man" exhibit, CSAS narrowed it down to a little over 100 pictures, said Bill Ferris, the lead researcher of the exhibit. The photos range from the Greensboro sit-ins to KKK rallies disrupted by Native Americans. 

On Feb. 8, the "I Am a Man" photography series will have its opening event. Seasoned photographers Doris Derby and Bruce Roberts will be special guests.

Roberts started snapping pictures at 13 years old, and now, 50 years later, he’s shared his photos at locations all over the world. When Roberts worked as a photojournalist, he focused his work in showing inequalities. 

“We were up to our ankles in a real good story idea,” Roberts said. “I wasn’t so much showing pictures as I was talking about stories.”

The photographer said he wanted to show people that these inequalities really existed. As a white man growing up during the civil rights movement in America, Roberts wanted to open the eyes of many Americans at the time.

“I was able to help many stories that way, including ones I really wanted to do, like the integration in Charlotte,” Roberts said. “I was really photographing what I wanted to and getting them to pay for it.”

One of Roberts' favorite photos in the exhibit is of a little Black boy sitting on a former UNC student's lap from the 1960s.

"In an abandoned school down in East Rockingham, North Carolina, there were a half dozen of college students who set up a program to help out where they could,” Roberts said. “I was down every week during the summer to photograph these kids.”

Among other impactful photos include some of Roberts' early run-ins with the KKK in Maxton, N.C. In the late 1950s, Roberts was present to capture a burning cross in front of a member of the Lumbee tribe's home near Pembroke, but Roberts said the Native Americans in the town were not idly sitting by.

“When the Grand Dragon got up and faced the fire cross, (the Native Americans) opened fire,” Roberts said. “They had an agreement with the sheriff that they would fire into the air. So when (the KKK) heard to gunshots from all different directions, the Klan took off their robes and ran for their cars and left. It’s the only time that the KKK abandoned a field.”

Roberts said the KKK never openly showed up in Maxton again.

Ferris started working on this project two years ago with French curator Gilles Mora. The exhibit actually debuted in France and the photos were collected by UNC and Duke students. There were over 7,000 images collected and the around 400 images selected focused in categories of action, demonstration, and context.

“It looks at a period of history and a political movement that we all know about, but it does so through photographs, many of which were never seen in a very public way,” Ferris said. “It gives us a fresh new look at this history.”

Ferris said his favorite photos are those from Franklin Street in the 1960s. One photo was taken 100 feet from where Silent Sam once stood, and Ferris said he wants this exhibit to be a reminder that these photos are still relevant today.

“When we looked at this exhibit, we realized many things have not changed a great deal,” Ferris said. “These issues of Blacks being treated as human beings still is as relevant today as it was then. The murder of Black men all over the nation is a national crisis.”

CSAS Associate Director Patrick Horn has been working with the exhibit for a year and his involvement included finding photographers that were less well-known. He said the exhibit at UNC, though small, is a micro-view of an exhibit that eventually will have traveled to three continents. After Europe and North America, the exhibit is planned to visit South Africa and Australia. Horn said the "I Am a Man" story is not only for the past and America, but for everyone.

“When you look at these photographs — you get that kind of chill in a way,” Horn said. “You think, ‘Gosh, these signs could be true in 2019,’ and they are true.”

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