“At one point, I thought, 'What can I do that’s constructive that will actually help people?' And I thought, maybe I can use these photos to show voter suppression in 1965,” photographer Jim Lemkin explained in his talk at the Commonwealth Honors College on Wednesday, September 23. The presentation and discussion, titled “Does My Voice Count? Voter Suppression Then and Now,” detailed Lemkin’s work in 1965 and 2020 to help register disenfranchised Black voters in Mississippi, and to document voting and voter suppression through photography.
The event was introduced by Nicole Nemec, a senior lecturer in the Honors College and professor for the “Ideas That Change the World” Honors seminar, who began by talking about Lemkin and his experience.
Lemkin was a volunteer photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a civil rights group that played a large role in the Freedom Rides and in voter registration drives for Black citizens in the South. In 1965, following the Voting Rights Act, Lemkin traveled in a van with the SNCC to rural Mississippi to register people to vote, with Lemkin documenting what he could with his camera.
“It was a pretty good historical document of one action by a few college students; we were all roughly 18 to 20 years old,” Lemkin said. “After the last election, a lot of my friends and I were a little distressed at the results, and I wanted to do something besides complain.”
In 2017, Lemkin found the negatives for these photos in his house, and turned them into an archive, much of which is available on his website, doesmyvoicecount.org. He returned to Mississippi in March 2020 to interview citizens, activists, and community leaders about voting and democracy in the state, and to follow up on his first trip there. He shared some of the audio of those interviews at his talk, letting students listen to firsthand accounts of racist voter suppression.
“Voter suppression is not only about politics. I really see it as a moral issue,” Lemkin explained.
He started the presentation by talking about this first trip to Mississippi in 1965, five months after the passing of the Voting Rights Act. Lemkin and other college students drove to Mississippi in a van, first stopping in Jackson and then going to Tylertown. He showed images of driving there, and then explained how they found segregation signs on restaurants and water fountains, even though at that point racial segregation had been banned by law. One photo he showed was of a segregated water fountain inside the Mississippi State House that had not yet been changed.
As part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee he was trained in nonviolent tactics, and how to respond if he was attacked. His trip was one year after three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi. He explained that, in order to protect against violence from white neighbors directed against them or the people they worked with, they took a number of precautions. This included being assigned to only Black neighborhoods, and avoiding being seen by white people, or in white neighborhoods with the Black people they were helping register to vote.
“To be honest I didn’t think about the dangers all that much, I was 19, and I was very committed to helping if I could,” Lemkin said, “and I had to do that, I was pulled to do it.”
He described going to town to get food, and having the sheriff come up to their car and say “y'all boys better move along now, why don’t you go back up North where you came from and sweep under your own doorstep first, why are you bothering us down here.” He said they took that as a threat and registered as such. He then talked about how “there’s so much work right wherever you are,” and that there was a lot of work to do in the North.
He talked about how local people helped them get around, and how one of his local hosts and guides, Mr. Ball, showed him a switch on his dashboard that would turn off his taillights if they were being chased by the KKK on a back road at night. Lemkin also said he was followed at one point.
“I would really suggest that if and when, and I hope when, whatever political actions pull you, that you learn how to protect yourself, what the laws are, what you can do and what you can’t do, and that you document it,” Lemkin told students.
Lemkin shared throughout his presentation statistics about voter registration of Black citizens before and after the Voters Rights Act. The presentation of the photos themselves was split chronologically into two parts, and he described each photo and what he remembered about the people in it, their lives and his experience.
“Our goal was to inform people about the fact that they could now vote, and bring them to register to vote but not in the [court house], you’d think that they’d be able to register at the county courthouse, [...] but the only place that Black people could register to vote was in a neutral federal facility, and the only place in Walthall County was the post office,” he explained.
When he returned to Mississippi to conduct interviews, and share the photo archive he had, he described hearing heartbreaking stories of violence, racism and intimidation. In the videos shared of residents he spoke with, students in the presentation were able to hear some of that testimony. One 78-year-old resident he introduced as Brother Hollis talked about literacy tests that barred Black residents from registering to vote, by asking obscure and impossible questions that were not asked of white residents.
“They may have had a question on there that you had to pass to pass the test, such as ‘how many grains of sand are in a pint jar,’ or ‘I have a bar of soap here, so who can tell me how many bubbles will be made from this bar of soap,’ said Hollis. "Those were some of the ridiculous questions we were asked, and any answer you gave they could define as right or wrong, because the truth of the matter was it wasn’t about the question, it was about how they felt about you, because they couldn't tell how many bubbles would come from a bar of soap [...] it was that racism that existed.
"So we said with the way things are, we’ve got to keep trying to register, but at the same time we’ve got to do away with racism,” he concluded.
Another interview he shared came from was Floree Smith, a 97-year-old resident, early community activist, and past chapter president NAACP.
“I grew up in a sharecropper’s home. We didn’t own anything. Whatever we made we had to give half to the owners. It was a terrible time. They lynched my friend. They say he was liking a White woman. They threw him on the porch. I saw the body,” Smith shared. “It was terrible to be denied the right to vote. I went to register a lot of times. You had to stand up to them. It was a struggle, but I just stuck with it, it didn’t bother me all. They tried to shut me up, but I wouldn’t shut up. When the time came I just stepped right in. The Lord gave me the energy. I got to vote in the 1950’s before the Voting Rights Act in 1965.”
“Mississippi is one of the bedrocks of the civil rights movement, and so voting rights has always been one of those major battlegrounds in the state, people have lost their lives, fighting just for the right to register to vote,” said Nsombi Lambright-Haines, another interviewee and executive director of One Voice. “Since we’ve had the right to vote in Mississippi it’s continued to be an uphill battle to make sure that those suffrage rights are honored and respected.”
She went on to talk about the implementation of voter ID laws in Mississippi, and how those laws have become another voter intimidation tactic in the view of her organization.
“This is just one action of many, many, many thousands, most of which were done by Black folks over many decades, even centuries, so I’m quite sensitive about not making my work out to be anything other than what prompted my heart,” Lemkin said. “I don’t claim credit for anything else other than that I needed to do it, and I think in the end it did some good.”
He ended the talk by encouraging students to get involved in causes they cared about, advising students to not “endanger your life, but definitely endanger your comfort zone.”