On November 9, the day after Election Day, author, photographer, and singer/songwriter Julius Lester posted a 1,700-word response on Facebook — no pictures, no links, just an emotional outpouring — that was shared nearly 1,800 times.
“And let it be said, loudly and clearly, that the election results were an expression of racism in its repudiation of Obama’s years as president, and they were an expression of misogyny,” Lester wrote. “That the White House would be occupied by a woman after eight years of it being occupied by a black man was simply more than those voters could live with. Making America great again meant putting blacks and women back in the places those white voters believed they belonged . . .
“I will let my ‘little light shine,’ especially when others try to put it out,” the post continued. “To endure means believing that ‘we shall overcome,’ even though we don’t know how, but because I don’t know today doesn’t mean I won’t know tomorrow, or the day after. To endure means to never stop believing that we shall overcome.”
At 78, Lester has honed thoughts developed between 1964 and 1968, when he photographed major portions of the black South and the civil rights movement as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). An exhibition of these photographs, “The Black South in the Sixties,” is on view at Princeton University’s Bernstein Gallery in Robertson Hall, April 14 through May 18, with a panel and reception on Thursday, April 20, at 4:30 p.m.
“Influenced by Walker Evans and the photographers of the Farm Security Administration,” Lester writes, “I set out to document the South as it entered a period of profound change . . . The ideal of freedom that was so fervently believed in was liberation from the obscenity of white racial superiority, and whites needed to be liberated from that as much, if not more, than blacks.”
The exhibition includes portraits of young civil rights workers such as John Lewis, Julian Bond, Stokely Carmichael, Andrew Young, and Fannie Lou Hamer, “the heart and soul of the civil rights movement in Mississippi,” as well as others whose names never made the newspapers but who transformed this country by how they lived, and risked, their lives.
On 12 wooded acres in Belchertown, Massachusetts, just outside Amherst, where Lester has lived since 1971, the author of 47 books enjoys visits from foxes and deer. In his beamed studio he is surrounded by a few thousand tomes stacked floor-to-ceiling (though on Facebook he laments that he has only read 25 this year).
The black-and-white photographs, made half a century ago, are very much relevant today. “As Americans we tend to put things behind us,” says Lester. “We think the past should be forgotten, and that’s one of the reasons I was led to photography. It’s a way of documenting life that was passing. These things would not be seen today if they hadn’t been photographed 50 years ago. We may look at these people and see their poverty, but I want people to see their humanity and what motivated me.”
The civil rights era was “a time of great idealism, when people believed their actions could make a difference, but it only lasted from 1960 to 1966,” he says. There is a renewed sense of activism today. “The Black Lives Matter movement is important, but people don’t know what to do. The 1960s (by comparison) was easy. Segregation was a symbol of injustice that was easy to organize against, but how do you organize against racism? I don’t envy young people.”
Born in 1939 in St. Louis, Missouri, Lester and his family moved to Kansas City, Kansas, and spent summers at his grandmother’s home in the heart of the Arkansas Delta. When they crossed the state line, Lester read “Welcome to Arkansas: Land of Opportunity.” Even as a child, he knew the sign didn’t apply to him. “The sign,” he recalled, was “an official proclamation of my nonexistence.”
His father, a Methodist minister, and mother were descendants of African slaves and German Jews. Lester borrowed his father’s box camera to make his first photos. He saw the Farm Security Administration photos in magazines and admired Walker Evans’ eye for classical composition. “The FSA photos were of poor people, black people, and it was the first time I saw black people photographed with respect and caring. I was seeing people like me in print.”
At Fisk University in Tennessee, he got involved in the American civil rights movement and earned a bachelor’s in English. After college, while writing for Sing Out magazine, Lester met Pete Seeger, who invited Lester to write a book based on his record. “The 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly” was published when Lester was 28.
Lester lived in New York City from 1961 to 1975, writing essays and reviews for the New York Times, Boston Globe, Village Voice, and New Republic, among others. Playing banjo, guitar, clarinet, and piano, he recorded albums with Vanguard, and hosted a radio show on WBAI-FM and a television show on WNET. As a member of the board of directors for the Newport Folk Foundation, he was approached by the SNCC: there was interest in revitalizing the folk tradition in Mississippi and documenting the project in photographs.
Lester bought two Nikon cameras and went back south. He found himself even more emotionally involved with photography than with finding musicians (though he did that, too, and organized several festivals), and ended up heading SNCC’s photography department. Inspired by the photographers of the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration, Lester set out to capture the South as it entered a period of profound change.
“I was very concerned with documenting what I was seeing,” he says. “For two years I did nothing but see.” He photographed Fannie Lou Hamer in 1966 while interviewing her in her Mississippi home. “Her house had been shot into, and she had never taken the bullets out, so I could see the bullet holes. She had a shotgun in every corner of room. She was determined that she would live as a free and equal person in society. She served me breakfast of eggs and grits and bacon and pork chops — I had never had a breakfast like that. She was standing there, talking, and I picked up my camera and took the photograph. It’s probably the only photo I have of her — I was more interested in recording her stories.”
While at SNCC he wrote, “Look Out Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama.” He also compiled a collection of black folktales, and then followed up with his first children’s book, “To Be a Slave.” It won a Newbery Honor Medal.
“With the advice of my publisher, I started writing children’s books,” he says on his author page. “My interest in slavery was personal because three of my great-grandparents had been slaves. The need to know more about my individual past led me to begin studying slavery, and once I did, my interest grew and I became intrigued by the challenge of trying to imagine what it was like to have been a slave. I wanted to communicate to others that those we call slaves were really human beings, human beings like us.”
Lester’s books for children and adults have been translated into eight languages and received, in addition to the Newbery, the Boston Globe Horn Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, an ALA Notable Book award, the National Book Critics Circle Honor Book award, and the New York Times Outstanding Book Award.
Following a stint teaching at the New School for Social Research, in 1971 he took a job teaching at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where he remained on the faculty for 32 years. He was the only faculty member who taught courses in four separate departments: Afro-American studies, English, history, and Judaic studies. He received the university’s distinguished teaching award as well as the chancellor’s medal. “I loved teaching,” he said.
After his father died, he converted to Judaism. His father would have been OK with it, he says, and his mother’s reaction was, “I’m glad you belong to somebody’s church.”
“I was drawn to Judaism because it’s a religion that puts a big emphasis on gratitude,” Lester says. “The prayers center around giving thanks, with a big emphasis on remembering. I’m comfortable being in services that are built around song — that’s a huge draw, the praying in song. I love Jewish music; it expresses who I am. I’m black. I get up in synagogue and sing, and all the Jews cry.”
Belonging to a Reconstructionist synagogue in Amherst, he calls the branch of Judaism he practices “reconservadox,” because it combines his favorite aspects of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism.
There are parallels in the religious teachings he had from his Methodist minister father with what he practices today. “In Judaism, God comes and says to Abraham, ‘Go forth.’ God doesn’t tell him where or what, just go, and Abraham says yes. When I was 14, living Kansas City, Kansas, and my father had a new job for which we had to move to Nashville, I didn’t want to leave friends. My father took me for a walk and said, ‘You don’t know what God has in store for you,’ and it was true. If we hadn’t moved to Tennessee, I wouldn’t have been there for the civil rights movement, and life wouldn’t have turned out how it did.”
A quintessential storyteller, Lester has many anecdotes. “An eager disciple came to a rebbe one day and wanted to know what he should do to be holy. The rebbe answered, ‘Pay attention.’ ‘OK,’ said the disciple, ‘but what should I do?’ The rebbe responded: ‘Pay attention.’ The disciple nodded. ‘Yes. I understand, but really, what should I do?’ ‘Pay attention!’
“That is the essence of meditation for me,” continues Lester, “the kind of meditation I’ve practiced since I began studying haiku in the late 1950s, which was also my introduction to Zen Buddhism and the Eastern way of being.”
There is also music. “My mother had me taking piano lessons when I was 7, and I studied piano through college, and during my senior year, I began playing guitar.”
Then, he says, one day years later while he was walking across campus, he was asked by the choir director, “Young man, why aren’t you in the choir?”
Although he replied, “I can’t sing,” the director persuaded him to join. “It was my involvement in folk music that became my avenue to working in the civil rights movement, and my working in the civil rights movement led to my first book. Practically everything in my life has flowed from paying attention and music. Life came along and I said ‘yes’ to what I was put here to do. I’ve done a lot more than I ever dreamed I would, or could, do.” His Vanguard recordings and a compilation released by Ace Records are available on eBay and YouTube.
Lester has just short of 5,000 Facebook friends — a following greater than that of many congregations. He posts quotes from the likes of Maya Angelou, Rilke, and Goethe; significant events from history that happened on this day; articles about extinct sea creatures, sandhill cranes, “book porn” (photos of sumptuously stacked bookshelves). His posts are like sermons, applicable to whatever spiritual path you follow. Among them:
“I was never comfortable with the concept of Grace. I can remember singing ‘America, America, God shed His grace on thee,’ and, thinking that my slave ancestors might not think it was ‘grace’ that had been bestowed on them. I love that in Judaism there is the ‘Grace After Meals,’ coming from the verse in the Torah which says, ‘You shall eat and be satisfied,’ and being satisfied, you give thanks. I love the phrase ‘grammar of gratitude,’ because the practice of gratitude can be a spiritual discipline that goes beyond being ‘thankful for all the blessings in your life.’ Be thankful also for the pains and the sorrows, which is not easy to do. And that is why gratitude can be as rigorous a spiritual practice as any other.”
And, “After Dylan Roof murdered the people in the Charleston, South Carolina church, I was baffled when some of the surviving family members said that they forgave him. How can you forgive someone who has not asked for forgiveness, and, in Roof’s case, does not want forgiveness but praise for his deed? Judaism says that only the person injured can ask for forgiveness, which is why Elie Wiesel maintained that the perpetrators of the Holocaust could not be forgiven… asking for forgiveness means acknowledging that something you said or did caused someone pain… But forgiveness does not automatically mean that everything is now all right, that the relationship can go back to what it was before. Forgiveness means that I will not deliberately hurt you as you hurt me. However, whether we can be friends again, I don’t know yet. That will take time, and maybe we will never be friends again. I just don’t know.”
The Black South in the Sixties, Bernstein Gallery, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University. April 14 to May 18. Panel and reception on Thursday, April 20, 4:30 p.m. Free. 609-497-2441 or wws.princeton.edu/about-wws/bernstein-gallery.