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June4, 2014

Vol. 114, No. 14


Mississippi Eyes

Matt Herron ’53 remembers the summer of 1964, when he led a seminal photography project to capture the story of civil rights in the South.

By Constance Hale ’79. Photographs by Matt Herron ’53.
Published in the June4, 2014, issue

Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights, 1965

Herron: I spent five days walking backwards, looking through my lens with a pack on my back. I have no idea where I slept, or what I ate, or anything. I’m sure I probably had a bedroll and slept on the ground. People were pretty frazzled out by the end of the day’s walk.

I really wanted to isolate the figures against the sky. I had to find a ditch. So I spent a portion of that day throwing myself into ditches and shooting up from there. In this picture, you know, the forces of creation smiled on me: Every arm, and every head, and every leg is in perfect juxtaposition.

The American flag is really a beautiful device. And flags, of course, were highly symbolic in those days. If you carried an American flag, your message was, “I would like the laws of the United States to be enforced in the South.” If you had a Confederate flag on the back window of your pickup truck, you were saying, “Segregation forever.” People were pulled from their cars and beaten on the highways of Mississippi because they had an American flag decal on their license plate.

When photographer Matt Herron ’53 arrived with his wife and two children in Birmingham, Ala., on a summer Sunday in 1963, the only thing on his mind was finding a laundromat. The family — headed to Jackson, Miss. — had been driving for days from Philadelphia, and they were tired and dirty.

They found a laundromat. And they found a sign in its plate-glass window that said: “Whites Only.”

Demoralized, they sought a place to cleanse their spirits rather than their clothes, joining the services at the 16th Street Baptist Church. When their 3-year-old daughter had to go potty, his wife took her down to the basement.

Two weeks later, on Sunday, Sept. 15, Herron got a call from Life magazine. A bomb had been placed in that very basement, and four little girls were killed. Herron returned to the 16th Street Baptist Church to take photographs.

Guided by deep passions about civil justice, Herron had gone to Mississippi to document a “manner of life” — Southern culture and Southern institutions. “What I really wanted,” he says, “was to start a documentary photography team.” He saw his moment in the spring of 1964, when plans were forming to bring 1,000 college students to Mississippi to teach and to register black voters: Freedom Summer.

He went to New York, raised $10,000, and received the blessing of Dorothea Lange, the documentary photographer who had captured some of the most enduring images of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Then he recruited eight photographers, and settled on a name: the Southern Documentary Project. The team fanned out across Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, seeking images that captured life in hidden corners, and revealed the flashpoints of a national crisis.

The photos cover the mundane as well as the momentous: the playfulness of coeds shaving their legs at an outdoor well, the subversive mischief of a plumber with a garden filled with overgrown jukeboxes, the beauty of cotton fields dotted with sharecropper shacks, and the stillness of laundry drying on a rickety porch.

Ken Light, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, calls the work an important body of visual documentary. “We often see the Selma march, the speeches,” Light explains, “but we forget the day-to-day struggle of people in the smallest communities, fighting for their rights.”

Now, 50 years after the summer of 1964, Herron has curated the group’s photos, added narration, and published an elegant book, Mississippi Eyes. (The photos shown here were taken by Herron from 1963 through 1965, and some appear in another book, This Light of Ours.) Mississippi Eyes, says Light, “is not an art book. It’s a thoughtful telling of a mostly unseen story.”

Herron first met Lange a few years before he headed South. “Dorothea was kind to me,” Herron writes in Mississippi Eyes. “She spent some minutes looking at my rather undistinguished pictures, and more time talking about what it meant to devote oneself to photography as a life calling rather than simply a profession. She told me that living visually was a lot like taking up monastic orders.”

Today, as Herron sits in an antique chair in his dining room in San Rafael, Calif., his voice becomes tentative, his words attenuated, as he remembers that meeting. “We talked maybe for half an hour,” he says, staring out the window at a mass of cymbidium orchids. “You know how this works: You have a moment with somebody. The connection is fleeting, but they say things to you that change your direction.”

He struggles to contain a current of emotion. “After being with her, I just said, ‘This is what I want to do with my life.’”

Herron hadn’t entered Princeton intending to be a photographer. He was toying with the idea of a career in the State Department. But he was moved by sculpture classes taught by former boxer Joe Brown, and recalls a seminal moment when he was writing an art-history paper on Georges Henri Rouault. He remembers spending an inordinate amount of time looking at the French Fauvist’s “The Old King.” “Suddenly it spoke to me,” he says. “I began to see why the painter had used the technique he had.”

At the same time, Herron was influenced by the World War II veterans who had founded his eating club, Prospect. He joined ROTC to avoid the Korean War draft, but found his antiwar views growing stronger. He resigned and applied for status as a conscientious objector.

Post Comments
3 Responses to Mississippi Eyes

Paul Hertelendy '53 Says:

2014-06-02 13:18:53

I knew Matt Herron, who also swam at Princeton. I greatly admire his breaking out of our "silent generation" conformist mode to march at Selma, etc., going against our 1950s grain, doing what he believed in, at great risk!!

David Cockcroft '53 Says:

2014-06-10 15:51:09

I remember Matt well. Even though I did not do much marching, I always admired those who did. I ended up in the Presbyterian ministry serving parishes in northern New Jersey and the Bronx -- often taking strong positions on social-justice issues when they were not very popular in the wealthy suburbs.

Kevin Teal '87 Says:

2014-06-19 12:18:08

What a great story of bravery and conviction. This makes me proud to be an alumnus of Princeton once again. Matt, thanks for showing us the less glamorous side of the greatest movement in American history, after the Civil War. God bless and keep you.
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  • My Princeton Prologue
    A new alum reflects on the magic of four years on campus
  • Mississippi Eyes
    Matt Herron ’53 remembers the summer of 1964, when he led a seminal photography project to capture the story of civil rights in the South.
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