Nashville: Punch the Sky

Posted: June 6, 2010 in All Posts, Day 2: Nashville, Nashville Sit Ins
Tags: , , , , , ,

Nashville: Punch the Sky

I came to Nashville not to bring inspiration, but to gain inspiration from the great movement that has taken place in this community.

We had just begun our trip – this photo was taken in the afternoon of the first full day of our trip, June 5.

We started off the morning with Rip Patton, who took us on a walking tour of the places in downtown Nashville, where the sit-ins took place in April of 1960. Rip was a participant and a Freedom Rider. He took us to the courthouse, and we stood in the same spot that Diane Nash stood with Ben West, “Mayor West, do you think it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?”

We were met later by Kwame Leo Lillard – who staged a mock sit-in at a Subway sandwich shop. Some of us were non-violent resistors, others were police and racists. It was uncomfortable, even knowing it was only a drill. Kwame was in character as he poured pretend water from a cup over the head of one of my classmates. He smacked books to the ground and tugged on people’s hair, called them n*ggers.

Nervously, I got up to take pictures and shoot video. During all of this uncomfortableness I needed to be using my hands, and ‘doing something’ – taking pictures for me takes me from a passive role to a participant.

Then time stood still.

The time dilation during that exercise was astounding. It felt like an eternity, this tense mock sit-in, like I had been standing there shooting video with two hands, for at least an hour. But when I looked later at the video clip on my camera, it had really been just under 8 minutes. For the students who participated in the real sit-ins, sitting there during agitation must have felt like an absolute eternity, time must have felt like it was standing still.

It was there that I began to think, “I cannot possibly imagine what that was like for them.”

The Subway exercise left us collectively with a feeling of helplessness. We left the restaurant to visit the Civil Rights collection at the Nashville Public Library. The calm quiet of the library and the eloquent display of photos and information as you entered the Civil Rights area gave me – and my classmates – to quietly process what we had just gone through, anticipate what the rest of trip was to hold, and review images of the events that took place in and around Nashville – the exercise left me so raw that I really felt the photos as we went through.

I wondered why I was there and why I was doing this. At the same time I was deeply moved by every single thing I saw.

We came to a hallway of books, and at the end there was an archway that said Civil Rights over the entrance to a room with a mock lunch counter, and a giant duratran backdrop. On that backdrop, was the MLK quote: “I came to Nashville, not to bring inspiration, but to gain inspiration from the great movement that has taken place in this community.”

Suddenly, I knew why I was there now and why I was doing this.

I was walking ahead of my classmates taking pictures, so I stood and watched people’s reactions to the quote. So remarkable that a dramatic visual display of words in a library could be so settling and appropriate, relevant.

Powerful words, matched the powerful context.

I think a lot of us were wondering “just why are we here,” until they saw this. Everyone reacted with what looked like release and relief. Classmate Bill Newell was there posing so that his wife Tennille could take a picture , facing the other way than he his in this photo. I asked him to turn around and as he did, he read for a minute, and then punched the sky.

This was the beginning of our trip, and I liked this photo so much it inspired me to keep shooting – I needed to be up close on this trip, and I wanted to remember every frame. And I wanted to catch “moments” like this one.

The cover photo is Rip Patton, talking to members of our group who were seated at the mock lunch counter, about what it was like to be part of the sit-ins.


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