On November 9, the day after Election Day, author, photographer and singer/songwriter Julius Lester posted 1,700 words on Facebook — no pictures, no links, just an emotional outpouring. It 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…”
At 78, Lester has honed thoughts he developed in 1964-68, when he photographed the civil rights movement for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). An exhibition of those photographs, The Black South in the Sixties, is on view at Princeton University’s Bernstein Gallery, Robertson Hall, through May 18, with a panel and reception on Thursday, April 20, 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, as well as others whose names never made the newspapers but transformed this country by how they lived, and risked, their lives.
Lester lives on 12 wooded acres in Belchertown, Massachusetts, where he has been since 1971. In a 32-year career at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Lester was the only faculty member who taught courses in four departments: Afro-American Studies, English, History and Judaic Studies. The author of 47 books is surrounded by a few thousand tomes, though on Facebook he laments he’s only read 25 this year.
“As Americans we tend to put things behind us,” said 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?”
Born in 1939 in St. Louis, Missouri, Julius 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.”
When he saw the Farm Security Administration photos in magazines, Lester borrowed his father’s box camera. “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.”
His father, a Methodist minister, and mother were descendants of African slaves and German Jews. His mother started him on piano lessons at age 7 and he continued until switching to guitar at Fisk University. One day, while walking across campus, the choir director said, “Young man, why aren’t you in the choir?”
Lester didn’t think he could sing, but when the director persuaded him to join, he found his voice. Folk music became his passion. While writing for Sing Out magazine, Lester met Pete Seeger, who invited him 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 1971, writing essays and reviews for the New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Village Voice and The 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 south. He ended up heading SNCC’s photography department.
“I was very concerned with documenting what I was seeing,” he said. “For two years I did nothing but see.”
While at SNCC he wrote, Look Out Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama, and compiled a collection of Black folktales. Back in New York, he wrote his first children’s book, To Be a Slave. It won a Newbery Honor Medal.
Lester’s books for children and adults, translated into eight languages, have received the Boston Globe Horn Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, an ALA Notable Book award, the National Book Critics Circle Honor Book award, the New York Times Outstanding Book Award, and been a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Jewish Book Award.
After his father died, Lester converted to Judaism. His father would have been OK with it, he said, and his mother’s reaction was “I’m glad you belong to somebody’s church.”
He calls the branch of Judaism he practices “reconservadox,” because it combines his favorite aspects of reform, conservative and orthodox Judaism. “I was drawn because it’s a religion that puts a big emphasis on gratitude,” Lester said. “The prayers center around giving thanks. 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.”
It was his involvement in folk music that became his 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.”