Carlton Wilkinson is in the back room of his Jefferson Street gallery. African masks peer down from one wall, but every other available square inch of space seems to be taken up by paintings.
Dressed in blue short pants, tennis shoes, and a Chattanooga folk festival T-shirt, Wilkinson is digging through a stack of papers. Then the pleasant, 37-year-old Nashville native takes a big cardboard box under his arm, pulls up a chair, and sits down. Jazz is playing on the stereo. The space is cool and serene.
Wilkinson opens the box. He pulls out a stack of photographs. The prints themselves are big16 by 20 inches. He begins flipping through them, explaining why each of them is important to him.
“This is St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, in Isoqueena County, Miss.,” Wilkinson says. The left side of the photograph shows a small structure, part wood, part brick. You would hardly know it as a church were it not for a squat, wooden steeple that juts from the roof.
Huge oak trees tower into the sky behind the church. In front are rows of soybeans and corn. The church is weather-beaten, and its paint is peeling. But in the photograph, the church also has great dignityit is as much a part of the landscape as the trees, the crops, and the towering clouds in the sky. It is a church where a black congregation worships. In Wilkinson’s photograph, it appears to be saying it has nothing on its mind other than doing God’s work in this most simple of places.
Wilkinson had heard about the church while doing research at the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta. The only roads leading to St. John’s Missionary Baptist were dirt; the Mississippi River flowed by just a quarter-mile away. When Wilkinson got there, he discovered that the church was so remote that it only held services once every two weeks. A circuit-riding preacher would show up every other Sunday to conduct services.
In Wilkinson’s photograph, the church seems to be the essence of peaceful solitude, but things were different three decades ago. “This church,” Wilkinson explains, “got bombed in ’65 because it started a Head Start program. When they rebuilt it, they rebuilt it with fireproof brick.”
Wilkinson was drawn to the church because of its role in the civil rights movement. While St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church is not as well known as some of the larger black churches that actively pushed for integration, it still played a role in integrating the South. Thus, like those larger churches in Birmingham, Jackson, and Nashville, St. John’s came under Wilkinson’s lens.
Wilkinson spent the entire summer of 1984 traveling through Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, photographing some 25 black churches that had become recognized landmarks in the civil rights movement. At the time, Wilkinson was getting his master’s in fine arts at U.C.L.A. The photographs were his master’s thesis.
In the annals of academic research, where most theses are more valuable as scrap paper than as living documents, Wilkinson’s work has achieved a degree of immortality. The photographs of the churches became a one-man show, “On the Altar of Liberty: Historical African-American Churches in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s-60s.” After the show premiered at U.C.L.A., Wilkinson’s work was featured in one-man exhibitions in Santa Barbara, Calif., at Fisk and Vanderbilt Universities, at Notre Dame and Bethune-Cookman College and in Los Angeles.
Wilkinson hasn’t shown his church photographs anywhere since 1991, although there has been some interest from the newly opened Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Many of the prints were recently purchased by BellSouth and are on display in the lobby of the company’s new downtown building. Prints are also in the collections of the Metro Airport Authority, the Grunwald Center of Prints and Photographs in Los Angeles, and several private collectors, including Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen and his wife, Andrea Conte.
The most important collector of Wilkinson’s church photographs may be the Schomburg Center, which is part of the New York Public Library System. Located in Harlem, the Schomburg Center acts as the leading photographic, artistic, and written archive of African-American history in the United States. It purchased an entire set of the church photographs.
“The reason this came about was I wanted to do something on civil rights,” Wilkinson says. “And in talking with my mother and others, the church was always the center point of life in the black community.
“The fact is, this whole show was motivated by my childhood experienceI remember King being killed and the tanks in Centennial Park, and I remember how the church fit into everything.”
Wilkinson’s mother is DeLois Wilkinson, who was a prominent figure in the civil rights dialogue in the ’60s. The Wilkinsons worshiped at First Baptist Church Capitol Hill, where the undisputed giant among Nashville’s black preachers, Dr. Kelly Miller Smith, was minister. First Baptist Capitol Hill served as the community center for black worshipers.
To this day, Wilkinson says the black church acts as the refuge where “families go for help, for counseling.” He says churches are still a place where people can ask for financial help, if it is needed. Historically speaking, he says, the black church was always where black citizens could organize. And that organization was key in the civil rights era.
Before Wilkinson drove from church to church, shooting roll after roll of film, he and a research partner named Arvli Ward conducted research to select the churches they needed to shoot. Once that list was narrowed down, the project was simply a matter of setting out on the road.
“This,” he says, flipping through the stacks of photos, “is the Asbury United Methodist Church in Canton, Miss. It is the same town where James Meredith did his one-man march and was shot by a sniper. This church was central in terms of meetings and organizations.”
He flips to another photograph. “This is the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church [in Montgomery, Ala.], where Martin Luther King preached. When I went inside, I saw the Bible and thought it would be perfect to shoot the Bible with the pews behind. Later I saw the Bible was opened to the book of Exodus.”
King has frequently been compared to Moses, since each helped his people escape oppression and move toward a promised land. The fact that Dexter Avenue Baptist’s Bible was open to the book of Exodus, which chronicles the Jewish people’s escape from Egypt, was utter serendipity.
Wilkinson flips to a print of the Centenary United Methodist Church in Birmingham. It is the church where James Lawson, the black student who was expelled from the Vanderbilt University Divinity School, worked as a preacher. Also in Birmingham is the 16th Street Baptist Church. “Catty-corner to this church,” says Wilkinson, “was the park where Bull Conner and the dogs attacked the marchers.” It is also the church where, on Sept. 15, 1963, four black girls were killed in a bombing.
Brown Chapel AME Church, in Selma, Ala., was the church where protesters met and departed on the famous march from Selma to Montgomery. On the way to Montgomery, the protesters had a brutal encounter at the Edmund Pettus Bridge with the Alabama state police. In Wilkinson’s photograph, the church is a heavy, red-brick, almost Gothic-looking structure.
A photograph of the New Hope Baptist Church, in Jackson, Miss., shows bright, white rafters “like arrows pointing to heaven,” Wilkinson says. During the struggle for integration, the church counted Medgar Evers as a member of its congregation. In the picture, big storm clouds have gathered around the building, and the sun is trying to poke its way through.
Two churches from Nashville made it into Wilkinson’s collection. The new First Baptist Church Capitol Hill is there with its massive spire. Also included is Clark Memorial United Methodist Church, located on 14th Avenue North, where James Lawson conducted some of the first nonviolent workshops in the South for groups of black protesters.
Toward the bottom of the stack is a photograph of the Church of God in Christ headquarters, located in Memphis. In Wilkinson’s photograph, the building looks like a huge, vast bulwark. It was at the Church of God in Christ that King delivered one of his last speeches, telling his listeners that indeed “I may not get there with you.” The next day, the country mourned his assassination.
Wilkinson’s photographs are not curious, fancy, or abstract in any way. Their primary purpose is to document.
Still, they speak to viewers on an artistic level. They are heavy and elegiac images. In some ways they are somber, a record of the struggles in which the churches were involved. But they are proud images too.
In recent days, Wilkinson has been listening to reports of church fires across the South. Hearing of more and more fires, he has become uneasy.
“I think it’s history repeating itself,” Wilkinson says. “White supremacy groups know churches are the strongest foundation of the black community. In the civil rights era, they attacked the leaders’ homes, and they attacked the churches. Those are the two places they hit.”
The church fires, he says, are an omen. “People seem to not like each other now. There’s hatred in the air, and racial hatred is the most obvious part of that.”
Wilkinson says he has long wanted to publish the exhibition photographs as part of a book. But frankly, he says, he hasn’t had the time. As the churches burn, Wilkinson takes no solace from the fact that he has saved a few of them on film.
You know... you can put any label you want on a can of shit. It'll…
@more cowbell (udingaling): You're one of those people who consider fair and balanced to be…
My biggest problem with this and the comments is that y'all keep calling it "satire"…
>The Republican-controlled Legislature in this state known as the buckle of the Bible Belt ..…
"We support fair treatment of employees on this project by contractors and Metro." This is…