Major Morris - The Forgotten March of the Poor
The Forgotten March of the Poor
Dates: October 1st – November 19th
Thursday 1-6pm and Sunday 12-5pm by appointment only.
Please see details below for visiting guidelines.
I Have A Dream…
1968, Silver Gelatin
In a time where wealth inequity in the United States has reached a point only matched by the period leading up to the Great Depression, calls for systemic change can be heard across the political spectrum. With a sense that the powers that be prosper under the status quo, the poor remain poor and the middle-class live in stagnation and decline. In this trying time, the voices of the marginalized attempt to shout over the voices of the powerful and the media in order to be heard.
Under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Poor People’s Campaign sought to bring light to the issues of the poor and to hold those in power accountable. The photographs in this exhibit document the living conditions of the poor alongside images of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign March that demanded change and the adoption of an Economic Bill of Rights in the wake of King’s assassination.
This exhibition reflects on the current state of economic affairs by considering the human impact of these problems—honoring those who have raised their voices in an attempt to remedy issues that still plague us today. Born into Cincinnati’s impoverished West End, featured photographer and educator Major Morris would later graduate from Harvard to dedicate his career—from behind both lens and desk—to further the call of the marginalized. These documents of the past remain as relevant today as the era in which they were captured.
“In my photographic experience I have always been drawn to capturing images of what life was for me as I groped my way through an underprivileged youthful existence; what life continues to be for so many young people living in circumstances similar to those of my early childhood, and in capturing those images, expressing what I feel about the strength and beauty of those children who refuse to be victims.
What I see is the reality of the physical circumstances into which these youngsters have been brought to life. What I see is the indomitable spirit that feeds the imagination, the curiosity, the need for doing that is natural to these and all youngsters during their formative years. I see the possibilities for growth, for the excitement of learning, for the formation of dreams that will take them up and out into productive, contributive lives. What I see is the need for the dreams to be nurtured! That is what my photographs are about!”
Major Morris, 2000
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About Major Morris and The Poor People's Campaign
In this exhibition we feature photographer, educator, and native Cincinnatian Major Morris, with a focus on his efforts to document poverty and the protests that sought to bring social and economic justice through the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign March on Washington.
Major Morris, born in 1921, was raised by his grandmother in the West End neighborhood residents referred to as Black Bottom on the southeast corner of what was once known as Kenyon Barr, presently referred to as Queensgate. Morris attended Walnut Hills high school until the ninth grade, dropping out to help support his family by working at the Kahn’s meat packing plant.
In 1942, Morris was drafted into the segregated Army. He served with the 2nd Cavalry Division, training in Texas. During that period Morris passed the examination to enter training to fly with the 99the Pursuit Squadron, the Tuskegee Airmen. When it was discovered he had not graduated from high school, the Air Corps found reason to disqualify him. Morris stated that that is when he determined to somehow complete an education. He was then assigned to the 92nd infantry division and later sent to the Po Valley, in Northern Italy joining the 5th Army. Following the war, Morris would purchase his first camera before returning home and settling in Boston, MA where he began attending evening classes at Boston University to earn a certificate in English in 1953.
Following his time at BU, Morris was hired as a research assistant at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he would assume increasing responsibilities including work in the research darkroom and instruction of undergraduate students in lab experiments, photography, and related matters until 1966. During this period, he began marketing his photography, first to MIT's Alumni publications, then to advertising agencies and textbook publishers; they valued his ability to make social commentary with his urban images. At this time Morris began to do fashion photography, servicing advertising departments in local Boston department stores and producing portfolios for high fashion models. Concurrently, Morris worked as a freelance news photographer for the Boston Globe Newspaper, and for Fairchild Publications where his work appeared regularly in the journals Women's Wear Daily and Men’s Wear Magazine. In 1966 he took a position at the Education Development Center (EDC), Newton Mass. as a project director and staff photographer until 1968.
At a time when Morris began to find stability professionally, the country was deep into the tumultuous period of the sixties with the social and sexual revolution in full swing. The push for civil rights were at the forefront of the public consciousness, and public protests over the war and civil equality were raging throughout the country. That spring, under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) planned a march on Washington intended to promote economic justice for the poor. The belief was that even as gains had been made over the decade for civil rights, economic conditions had not improved and poverty negatively impacted a broad segment of the population, with between 22-33 percent Americans living below the poverty line.
At the height of planning, the group faced both pressure from within the campaign—with some members wishing to focus efforts elsewhere—and from outside, most notably from presidential candidate, Richard Nixon who was on the campaign trail promoting a “Law and Order” platform, claiming he would end the violence and unrest that, at times, accompanied the anti-war and civil rights marches and protests taking place throughout the sixties. In February-March, as part of the Poor People’s Campaign, the Memphis Sanitation Strike took place. Violence erupted on March 28th and brought criticism of the movement along with fears that similar violence may erupt again at the upcoming Washington march. Days later on April 4th Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, bringing into question if the march would still proceed. Determined to continue, the SCLC continued to plan the march while lobbying congress for the adoption of an Economic Bill of Rights (EBoR).
Beginning on May 12th Coretta Scott King led a protest demanding the adoption of the EBoR; throughout May nine large caravans converged on Washington. On May 21st thousands of people and activists set camp on the National Mall. The camp, known as Resurrection City, would remain for six weeks during the protest.
The protest culminated on June 19th (Juneteenth) with the Solidarity Day March attracting more than 50,000 people, with Ralph Abernathy, Correta Scott King, and many others speaking to the crowd about economic justice and equality. On Thursday, June 20th police claiming provocation, fired tear gas into the camp and days later on June 24th nearly a thousand police arrived to clear out any remaining residents of the camp. On that evening, acting on reports of broken windows and lawlessness, a group of 100 police officers in riot gear fired tear gas and sealed the area off. The National Guard was brought in to enforce a curfew and a state of emergency was declared, putting an end to the demonstration and its remaining occupation.
In the period following the Poor People’s March, Morris continued to document impoverished neighborhoods and the street life and activity taking place within them. During this period Major Morris was given his first public showing in a gallery at the First Unitarian Church, Arlington Street, Boston. Later, some of his images were selected to be shown at the DeCordova Museum of Lincoln, Massachusetts in an exhibition titled, "The New England Experience," featuring the work of outstanding regional photographers.
Morris would continue his career in higher education working in administration at The Education Development Center and Tufts University, holding a number of positions including director of intergroup relations programs and elementary education 1969-74. He then became the assistant director—and later—acting director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Intergroup Relations 1974-76, while also attending the Harvard Graduate School of Education and receiving a Master of Education in 1976. After graduation, Morris would go on to work at the University of Delaware as the director of the Desegregation Training Institute and instructor of curriculum and instruction, in the College of Education 1976-77. He then took a position at Southeastern Massachusetts University as the assistant for equal opportunity and intergroup relations to SMU President. He would take his last position at Portland State University; Portland, Oregon as the director of affirmative action and a member of the university president’s staff.
Morris retired in 1989 and moved to Southern California where he devoted his time to art, photography, and writing. He published two books: an anthology of his writings, reminiscences and reflections entitled Escape from Black Bottom and Nurture Their Dreams, a book of his own photography. Major Morris died in Escondido, CA in 2016 leaving behind a remarkable body of work that includes the many images on view in this extraordinary exhibition, ensuring that neither the man nor the march will be forgotten.