Thinking in Light: the Art of Julius Lester by Jessamyn Smyth

Julius Lester’s biography should be a familiar one. In the civil rights movement, in literature, in scholarship and teaching, Lester’s presence has been transformative, and the list of his awards and publications is enormous. He is the author of 43 books including nonfiction, novels, children’s literature, poetry, and photographs (with David Gahr), and his work has been translated into 8 languages. He is the recipient of the Newbery Honor, the Boston-Globe Horn Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, the ALA Notable Book award, the National Book Critics Circle Honor Book award, the New York Times Outstanding Book Award, and has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Jewish Book Award. His photography has been included in an exhibit of images from the civil rights movement at the Smithsonian Institution, and he has had many shows throughout Western Massachusetts, where he makes his home: the Student Union Gallery, Forbes Library, Westfield Atheneum, Amherst Chamber of Commerce, and the Robert Floyd Photography Gallery have all featured solo exhibits of his work. He has published essays and reviews for the New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Village Voice, and The New Republic, among others. He taught at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst for thirty-two years, and was awarded all three of the university’s most prestigious faculty awards: the Distinguished Teacher’s Award, the Faculty Fellowship Award for Distinguished Research and Scholarship, and the Chancellor’s Medal. In 1986, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education selected him as the Massachusetts State Professor of the Year.

I first met Lester in the ‘90’s, as an undergraduate student at UMass, where I was completely unaware of these details of his stature. I was immediately aware, however, of a much more salient (to me) kind of stature: he reminded me, in some important ways—in his intellectual toughness and infinite curiosity, in the difficult compliment of his extremely high expectations, in his insistence that I rise to the best of my capabilities and his general refusal to accept anything less—of my beloved grandfather. He was, I recognized within moments of meeting him, The Real Thing: a man who was living in congruence, to the best of his ability in every aspect, with his ethics and his talents, his heart and his mind. I recognized him, in the kindred-sense that jars us: he recognized something in me, too, and gave me such a hard time in his class and as a member of my honors thesis committee that I count him among the most important and invested teachers I’ve had.

We’ve stayed in touch intermittently over the many years since then, and in these last months of conversation opened by my request to feature some of his work in Tupelo Quarterly, he has become someone I recognize as having the even greater stature of a friend. Lester has empathy, and he isn’t afraid to use it. He also has one of those rare, interdisciplinary minds and creative spirits that can translate experience into art of a lasting—and truly cathartic—kind. When it became clear to me, in the course of our conversations, that many of his historic 1966 photographs had never been seen before, I was even more immensely glad to be able to share some of this work with you in the launch issue of TQ.

Julius Lester was born in St. Louis in 1939 to Rev. W.D. Lester, a Methodist minister, and Julia (Smith) Lester, themselves descendants of African slaves and German Jews. He grew up and studied in the South, graduating from Fisk University in 1960 with a major in English and minors in Art and Spanish. For the first years of the ‘60’s, Lester worked as a folksinger in New York City. He was a member of the Board of Directors for the Newport Folk Foundation, and in this capacity was approached by a couple of members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC): there was interest in revitalizing the folk tradition in Mississippi, and documenting the project in photographs. Lester, who had been interested in photography since childhood, bought two Nikon cameras, one with a 55mm lens, the other with a 105mm lens, and with Worth Long, an amateur folklorist and member of SNCC, 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.

“I’d gone south originally for two months. I ended up staying for two years. In ’64 and ’65, the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act: this was a moment; a being on the cusp of social change,” Lester said to me this July, as we talked through his photographs. “I was familiar with the FSA photographers; Walker Evans was a big influence for me. But I knew nobody could see the way I saw. I began thinking in light. It was a special time,” he says, “because for two years I devoted myself to seeing.”

Not much in life is certain but the knowledge that courage enough to remain wide-open in it—fundamentally engaged and optimistic enough to expect and work for justice and beauty in this world, courageous enough to shed light—is what it’s about, even as it’s a rarity. Real empathy is a rarity as well, and yet to me, it is the wellspring for art that matters: Julius Lester is the kind of person who is willing to risk the kind and depth of empathy that effects real change by bearing witness.

Both physics and Judaism have clear language for this idea of observation/witness and its real effects. In day to day life, we have the praxis, the art. In Lester’s photography and being, these large principles of empathy, witness, observation, and change—of thinking in light—can be seen and felt in tangible presence.

The images to follow speak for themselves. They also call us forth to speak back to them, about them, to grapple with witness in that deepest sense. Even amongst our editorial board, the work ignited intense discussion about the intersections between art and politics: discussions which proved useful, and effected change.

Lester’s photographs from the mid-Sixties speak not only to their particular time and place with great specificity and clarity, they speak to ours, and others. They make portraits, as witness does, of the core experiences of being human in all times and places. That this feature was coming together for TQ over a summer that included George Zimmerman’s trial and the gutting of key provisions of the Voting Rights Act made the photographs all the more resonant.

Here we are, again and still.

When I asked Lester about the process and meaning of portraiture, of seeing, of bearing witness in times of great change and struggle, here is what he said:


I was so aware that these faces had not been seen. People don’t look at these people.
What you’re photographing is not an object or a person.
What you’re photographing is a relationship.
Something you see calls forth something in your soul.



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You can scroll through the photographs to read Julius Lester’s comments about them, or click on an individual image to see it in its own window: you can then use the window’s arrows to view all the images as a slideshow. – JJS
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image 1

“Beggars were common in Atlanta. ...Because seeing is so important to me, I was compelled to photograph those who can’t see, to get inside that experience.” – JL

image 2

“David Gahr would always photograph Dumpsters to document what was going on—at that time, James Brown was a big deal in the Black world, but not yet to anyone outside of it.” – JL

image 3

“The Civil Rights Act outlawed segregation in 1964.

Two years had passed.

They had not taken down the sign.” – JL

image 4

“When Julian Bond was elected to the Georgia Legislature, they refused to seat him because he was associated with SNCC and opposition to the Vietnam War.” [The Supreme Court eventually forced Georgia to respect Bond’s freedom of speech and seat him in the legislature. Lester was at the State Capital to see him seated.] “I’d never been to the State Capital before. Neither that flag nor those men were my friends, and it seemed such a cliché: am I really seeing what I’m seeing right now?”

In July of 2013, Lester and I talked about how we still battle over Confederate flags. This was the summer of the overturning of Section Four of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court; of George Zimmerman being declared not guilty for killing Trayvon Martin. The emotional tenor of the country was familiar.

“It has to do with memory,” Lester says. “In that memory must be active. Americans have this habit of putting things behind them, and when you put things behind you they kick you in the butt.

The resurgence of white racism after Barack Obama’s election, Zimmerman: it feels like a failure. A failure of the ‘60’s.

Memory has to be active.
We don’t remember.

One thing I love about being Jewish is that Judaism admonishes you to remember.”

image 5 (2)


image 6When Lester and I were discussing which photographs from the Atlanta Riot to use, I described this one as “smug white man, black man throwing rock.” He set me straight in this exchange:

The ‘smug white man’, and that is a good description, was the mayor of Atlanta, Ivan Allen. He was attempting to quiet the crowd, to restore “order”, as it were. The black man is not throwing a rock, however. He is delivering a fiery speech, and his arm is simply going forward to emphasize some point or other that he is making, but his hand is empty.

I’m sitting here thinking it probably speaks to my own anger and disgust with the relentless redundancy of racism that part of me really wants that man to have a rock in his hand (I guess I associated it with the photograph of the shattered police car window). Of course, it’s better that he doesn’t have one; he’s got the higher emotional ground than I do at this moment, for sure. His visible passion, the smugness of the Mayor, their respective heights in the image: it’s a painful, fierce, and beautiful photograph. All the more so that what he’s hurling is his heart.

’…the relentless redundancy of racism’ is a wonderful way to express it. I feel like I’m back in the 1950s. I also loved your phrase about the black man in the photograph with the mayor -“…what he’s hurling is his heart.” Maybe there’s a way to use that phrase with the photograph.

Lester then gave me some more context for the photograph:

“Ivan Allan was Mayor of Atlanta: a good guy, for the South at that time, a liberal guy, friends with King—he was in a strange position that day. He wanted to do the right thing...he was trying to get all the people to leave the streets. No one got killed that day. He kept the rednecks in line. GA Governor Lester Maddox ...handed out axe handles to white patrons so they could beat Black people if they tried to come into the restaurant—for the time, Ivan Allan was a righteous man.

The man [beneath Allan] giving the speech laid it down—racism, poverty—

We used to hate white liberals because we didn’t see liberalism as a political position.

I love John Brown because it wasn’t an intellectual position [he took], it was a heart position.

Mayor Allan was a tragic figure because he wanted to do what was right, but didn’t want to give up power.” – JL

image 7 (2)

image 8“I cannot explain the expression on this boy’s face. Is he angry, just serious, sad, or….? Even at the time I took the photograph, I did not know.

I have puzzled over that face for a lot of years and have never felt that I have been able to read it.

He was from Drew, Mississippi.

In the 1930’s or ‘40’s, there was a lynching in Drew: they cut off a black man’s penis and put it in a glass jar in alcohol. It sat in the window of the General Store after that.” – JL

image 9 (2)


image 10image 11“I love trees,” Lester says when I comment on how trees seem to be such an integral and articulate part of his photographic language.

“But there’s a real irony in this, boys in the trees, because of lynching.  So this photograph cuts both ways for me.

[There was] so much joy in that family.”

image 12

In our exchange about this photograph, I talked about how it struck me as a perfect capture of uncomplicated, vibrant happiness. The running kids, their movement toward whatever game or store is around the corner, the signs—it’s plain, and the very plainness of the happiness in it speaks to the larger surround as powerfully as the much more overtly fraught photographs. Lester said:

“It was summer. It was the main avenue through the black section of Atlanta. It was pure summer joy. There are no white people in this picture. Things were so separate—segregation was—”

And then we talked for a while about how easily the logical conclusion of that sentence can be misunderstood, misconstrued.  Peace, simplicity, full and simple unguarded humanity: this could only be seen when there were no white people in the frame.

This photograph, a brief and deep portrait of uncompromised Black life in the south, was what Julius Lester witnessed—and by witnessing preserved, and by preserving, gave.

– Jessamyn Smyth