Faces years after the bombing

When I had the opportunity last month to talk to MacArthur Fellow and Gannett colleague Jerry Mitchell, I jumped at it. It wasn’t everyday you got to talk to a genius grantee.  A long-time investigative reporter at the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell was starting a blog about civil rights cold cases, part of a new, larger Gannett civil rights project. He was looking for blogging tips, and I was just happy to talk to him.

On the phone, he mentioned hanging around a recent New Yorker visit and photo shoot with civil rights heroes, bound for a coming issue. We got to talking for a minute about the mag’s photography — the Platon U.N. portfolio had just come out — and I no doubt sounded awestruck.

Platon’s civil rights portfolio arrived in the most recent issue. The most powerful page for me was Chris and Maxine McNair embracing in front of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where the 1963 Klan bombing killed their daughter Denise. The photo grabbed me twice as hard as the rest. His resolved face, her sad face, surely traded often.

Your online viewing options for the photo aren’t great. An audio gallery has the shot in the bottom-right corner, but the presentation is limited in size and and disappears quickly. Better is the digital edition page, if you’re a New Yorker subscriber or sign for a free trial. Conde Nast and Remnick, you can do better, especially on public-service work like this.

If you can’t get into the digital edition, you can get more satisfaction from Mitchell’s two blog posts about the photo shoot. In the first post, he writes about the photo bringing Medgar Evers’ widow and brother together after years of issues between them. In the second, Mitchell notes the portfolio’s publication but also adds a personal thought:

I have said it before in speeches, and I’ll say it again here: Getting to know these families who played a role in the civil rights movement has been truly inspiring.

And getting to know them means more than any award.

As Martin Luther King Jr. observed, “One day the South will recognize its real heroes.”

Read all of Mitchell’s new blog here.

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