Chronicling the Dream 

Photos depict dignity in Civil Rights struggle

click to enlarge Walking a path of resistance and reflection: "We Marched" taken in 1966
  • Walking a path of resistance and reflection: "We Marched" taken in 1966

In the early 1960s, groups of tough-minded, persistent, and dedicated young women and men helped change the American legacy of racial oppression that had long been an accepted part of our culture by becoming activists in the Civil Rights movement. Many of them worked with SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, as community organizers, educators and activists in the heart of the segregated South.

Maria Varela, a visiting professor at Colorado College, worked as a SNCC field secretary in Alabama and Mississippi from 1963 to 1967. As well as "creating political and economic educational material for SNCC organizers," Varela was a photographer, recording events for the SNCC Photography Project and the Black Star Photo Agency.

A couple dozen of her photographs are currently on display at CC's Coburn Gallery, and they are a remarkable testament of the movement. Not only do they accurately and movingly depict the passion and tumult of the times, they also succeed brilliantly as works of art.

Consider the photograph titled "Ain't Goin To Let No Rain Turn Us Around," a line of marchers, men and women, African Americans, walking in the rain, on a muddy road. It's an austere, unsentimental piece. This is the famous Meredith March of 1966. The rain and mud are palpable, as is the determination of the marchers, each one bent slightly forward, walking steadily in the rain.

Another, from the Mississippi Delta, where U.S. Troops herd evicted plantation workers from an empty U.S. Air Force Base, occupied in search of shelter, shows a middle-aged woman, carrying a suitcase and clutching other possessions, hurrying across a barren field. She is followed by 20 or 30 soldiers, just kids really, young white men carrying nightsticks. Their faces are smooth, unlined, and blank; the woman being evicted radiates strength and conviction. It is an image that perfectly expresses Gandhi's concept of satyagraha -- non-violent resistance to illegitimate power.

In "Children in Head Start Classes," a young woman of color is surrounded by a bunch of eager African-American kids. It's a beautifully composed image that is wholly unremarkable in today's world. Yet when it was made, it carried a powerful and disquieting message, one which challenged the institutionalized racism of the time.

It's interesting to compare Varela's images with those of an earlier generation of photographers; with Walker Evans, say, or Dorothea Lange. Evans and Lange, in documenting depression-era America, show people who are mute, passive, and just there. They're victims; like war refugees, they scarcely have the strength to struggle against their fate. Varela's subjects are just as poor, but they're gaining strength and dignity by refusing to submit to their fate. By their actions, they're redefining their lives.

In a recent conversation, Varela talked about her photography, her work since the '60s and the long path which brought her to Colorado College.

She became a photographer almost by accident. SNCC had staff photographers, who accompanied organizers and activists to events. They were in great demand, since the presence of a photographer, or of any media person, greatly lessened the danger to those participating in the event. SNCC sponsored a two-week course in photography, taught by Matthew Herron, who was a student of Minor White, a well-known photographer who had himself been a student of Ansel Adams. Varela took the course, and learned to shoot and print black-and-white photographs. She was there to record and to document, but, as she says, she learned "to let her left brain take over" and create the photograph that was in her mind.

Toward the end of the '60s, Varela moved to northern New Mexico, where she became an economist and a different kind of community organizer. She began to see the persistent rural poverty of that area as something that was not indigenous and natural, but rather the consequence of cultural change created by outside agencies. When, for example, the mores of Victorian America were superimposed upon these societies, the formerly powerful roles that women played were substantially diminished.

Drawing upon her beliefs and experience, Varela decided to work with rural women to create businesses that would draw upon existing skills and resources. She rejected what might be called the maquiladora model; the notion that, since you have a pool of low-wage workers, you might as well just plunk down a factory and assemble something. As she points out, if you have to truck raw materials into a remote area, and then truck your finished goods out, your workers will always remain at the lowest possible point on the wage scale. Rural native businesses must use the land's bounty, not treat the land as a wasting asset, to be altered, pillaged and abandoned.

Working in New Mexico for 15 years, Varela helped create five businesses, four of which are flourishing today. She was one of the creators of a new paradigm of economic development, not only for a particular part of the American West, but worldwide. In 1992, she co-authored Rural Environmental Planning for Sustainable Communities which is an important text for people working with traditional communities in Latin America, India, and throughout the so-called Third World.

In 1990, Maria Varela's life work was recognized by the MacArthur Foundation, which awarded her a genius grant. She was speechless.

"I asked them, you're going to send me a letter aren't you? And then I didn't tell anybody for a week, until I got the letter," she said.

Thanks to CC professor Doug Monroy, who pleaded with her for years to come to the Springs, Varela has been at Colorado College for two years as a visiting professor. She teaches a class entitled "Traditional Women in the Old and New West".

Asked what challenges she faces as a teacher, she touched upon the cultural texts that her students bring with them. "So many of them feel ashamed of the dominant culture, and powerless to change it. But we talked about this in class, and realized that each of us needs to accept what is good and bad in our culture, what is ugly and what is beautiful. And as we deal with other cultures, we must neither vilify nor romanticize them, but try to see them as they are."

Varela will be present at a reception in the Coburn Gallery from 3-5 p.m. Don't miss it; the photographs are extraordinary, the photographer more so.


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