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While we may never truly have the chance to walk in someone else’s shoes, witnessing a moment through their eyes can be the next best thing. That is something the late photojournalist Ernest Withers managed to do with authority via his esteemed work documenting the lives of African Americans across the South during the Civil Rights Movement.
“[Withers’ work] is a really well-rounded look at a point in time, but that point in time is still poignant to today. It informs so much,” NAACP Boulder County Branch President Annett James says of the journalist’s photos featuring Black life in America, mostly during the 1950s and ‘60s.
That stirring power of Withers’ photographs is precisely why James and her fellow NAACP board members brought the iconic photographer’s work to Colorado for Walk With Me, an exhibit featuring more than 100 prominent shots from Wither’s collection at Boulder’s Dairy Art Center. The free event, open January 16 through February 27, displays some of Withers’ most recognizable pieces documenting Black history in America, including subjects like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Negro League Baseball, the Memphis blues music scene, and more.
“A photograph tells a truth at that moment … So we have to face that, right? And then once we face that, then we can start to examine other moments that expand from that,” James says, noting that she hopes the exhibit can serve as a resource for Coloradans from any walk of life. “If you can get taken in by it, I think it will transcend some of the angst, and just allow us to be fully present and human in the experience. ”
The curated collection is one of the largest exhibitions of Withers’ work in the country outside of his home of Memphis, Tennessee. “We wanted to take a look at the daily life that this photojournalist was capturing that wasn’t being told throughout the country, or outside of a very small regional area,” James says.
Glenda Robinson, a Longmont resident and member of the NAACP Boulder County’s Executive Committee, appears in one of the photos in Walk With Me, a reminder of the impact that the movement and history of that era had—and still has—across the nation, regardless of region. “I am quite honored to know that I’ve made history,” Robinson says, recalling the first time she unsuspectingly saw her photo hanging in the Smithsonian African American Museum of History and Culture in 2019.
Robinson grew up in Memphis during the Jim Crow era, where her activism during the Civil Rights Movement brought her to historic events like a Memorial March in Memphis on March 8, 1968. Withers snapped a photo of Robinson during the event. She was marching to honor the lives of Echol Cole and Robert Walker, two Black men and sanitation workers who were killed by the trash compactor while on the job. The incident prompted a two-month-long sanitation strike in the spring of 1968 that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. later joined in support. Robinson, who was a college student at Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis) at the time, says she can still hear the shrills of victory her white dormmates made when Dr. King was eventually assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis a few weeks later on April 4, 1968.
“Hate killed that man,” Robinson says, recalling the day of Dr. King’s death. “People need one another. We need one another. We cannot make it in this life without each other … Dr. King was really keen on love and community. And even the Bible says it: Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself. Everything else hangs on these two things.”
The Dairy Arts Center will also host several cultural and educational events in conjunction with Walk With Me, including a Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration and a performance on February 27 from the Grammy Award–winning spiritual ensemble the Fisk Jubilee Singers. James says “regardless of your age, your race, your political persuasion, there’s something there that will allow any human resonance.”
The events are also an extension of how the NAACP branch hopes to bring more diverse perspectives to a predominately white Boulder County, as well as surrounding Colorado communities.
“Just because your community looks homogeneous, it doesn’t need to live that way, and it doesn’t need to think that way,” James says, noting that art is one of the easiest ways to open those conversations, even if it’s an uncomfortable topic. “You can’t be afraid of it. Sometimes it’s painful. Sometimes it’s joyous. But that’s just part of the human experience, right? We want to have our community be comfortable with Black history because that history belongs to all of us, whether you’re Black or not.”
If you go: The Walk With Me exhibit and full series of events are free and open to the public, though some events require you to pre-register or reserve a ticket. Find the full event schedule and registration info online. Proof of COVID-19 vaccine and face coverings are required for entry. 2590 Walnut St, Boulder; January 16–February 27, Monday’ through Friday’s 10 a.m.–6 p.m.; Saturday’s noon to 7:30 p.m.; Sunday’s noon to 5:30 p.m.