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Southern Discomfort: Photographer Herbert Randall recalls the Freedom Summer of 1964

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A selection of photographs by Herbert Randall goes on view this weekend at the John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor. Randall, who lives on the Shinnecock Reservation with his wife, Roz, will show family portraits, cityscapes and candids. But perhaps his most significant photographs are the images he took 45 years ago. 

In 1964, when our new president was three years old, Randall was a 28 year old photographer living in the Bronx. Randall had won a John Hay Whitney Fellowship for a photographic project and felt he should head South to do some shooting. A friend in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) office in New York suggested Randall go along as the photographer on a SNCC project scheduled in the south that summer. 

“I said, ‘OK, that sounds good. I might be able to do that,’” recalls Randall. “Then she told me it was in Mississippi. I remember my words, ‘There’s no way in hell I’m going to Mississippi.’” 

A short time later, Randall met Sandy Leigh, project director for the Hattiesburg, Miss. SNCC office who came to New York to recruit volunteers. When he found out Randall was a photographer, Lee persuaded him to come along.

During a week long training session with SNCC in Oxford, Ohio, Randall and the other volunteers learned that three men from the previous session had disappeared. By the end of the summer, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, had been found dead in Mississippi.

When Randall made his way to Hattiesburg, tensions were high. He rode in a car driven by a white male volunteer with three white women. Because the car was a foreign model with Pennsylvania plates, they were a target — Randall was black and knew he couldn’t be caught in a car with whites.

“You were scared,” he recalls. “Three people had been killed — a lot of people didn’t have qualms to do in more. They thought we were invading their beloved section of the country. I had to lay in the back seat through the states between Ohio and the South.”

In fact, not long after arriving in Mississippi, volunteers noticed that the car Randall had ridden in had a bullet hole in it, as did other SNCC cars. The Mississippi welcoming committee had left a calling card. 

“The first photos I took in Mississippi was of the cars which were shot into,” said Randall.

For the two months he was in Mississippi, Randall documented scenes of African-American life — children playing, picnics, hayrides and small towns. But many of Randall’s photographs became iconic images of the struggle for equality. His photograph of folk singers Roger Johnson and Pete Seeger singing with students remains one of his most recognizable. Another of Cleveland’s Rabbi Arthur J. Lelyveld who had been beaten in response to his efforts to register black voters ran in newspapers across the country. 

“I had difficulty taking pictures of people beaten. But I found myself in many roles that I hadn’t envisioned. You wanted to help,” says Randall. 

“I was down there just to document the program and perhaps get photos for my fellowship. I didn’t have any ideas about it. I’d help if I could and hopefully use some of the photographs,” he says. “I swore If I could get out of that damn place without being maimed or killed, I’d never go back.”

But Randall did go back, 35 years later when his work was shown at the museum at the University of Southern Mississippi. With the inauguration of President Obama, Randall says he paused to reflect — not on the role he played in the civil rights effort, but on behalf of those who did not live to see the day.

“A lot people who didn’t make it to this point really struggled for equal rights,” said Randall. “I really think about the ones that didn’t make it. It’s a new world — hopefully.”

The exhibit of Herbert Randall’s photographs opens at the John Jermain Library, Main Street, Sag Harbor this Sunday with a reception from 2 to 4 p.m. The opening includes observance of the National African American Read-In. The show runs through February 28.

Above: Herbert Randall’s image of Roger Johnson and Pete Seeger singing “We Shall Overcome” with Freedom School students at the Palmer’s Crossing Community Center in Mississippi