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CITYSCAPES / ED BOYER

A Gut-Wrenching Reminder of the Need to Remember

February 10, 1996|ED BOYER

The grotesque image was what remained of Emmett Till after a Mississippi lynch mob beat him to death in 1955 and threw his grossly disfigured body into a river.

A chorus of gasps arose from the Locke High School students assembled around the television monitor, looking at videotaped footage of the photograph.

And then stunned silence.

Janine Watkins, their tour guide, let the silence settle over them for an excruciatingly long moment before asking: "Are you going to remember? Are you going to remember?"

The gut-wrenching shot of Till from Jet magazine is one of the most powerful stops during "Countdown to Eternity: Beyond the Dream," an exhibit of photos and life-size displays at the Watts Labor Community Action Committee on South Central Avenue.

The exhibit is built around a collection of rare photographs of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists, taken by Benedict J. Fernandez in 1967 and 1968.

The displays, re-creations of some of the most dramatic civil rights touchstones, include a back-country Mississippi Delta road, a segregated lunch counter, bathrooms with signs saying "colored" and "white," a jail cell suggesting one where King wrote his celebrated "Letter From Birmingham Jail."

Inside the cell, a monitor shows footage of police in Birmingham, Ala., setting dogs on demonstrators.

Students may be able to recite various events in the struggle for civil rights, but the exhibit aims at penetrating their psyches to get them to feel the terror demonstrators faced . . . and remember.

"Damn," Cornelio Orozco, 18, muttered through clenched teeth as he watched the dogs attack. He said afterward that he knew about the brutality civil rights demonstrators faced in the 1960s, but he had never seen the police dog attacks before.

Walking the exhibit's Mississippi road, visitors come across a dusty car, abandoned in an overgrown swamp--a car representing one civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner used before they were murdered in 1964.

Behind it stands a tree with a noose dangling from a branch.

"Why do you think the noose is hanging from the tree?" Watkins asked the Locke students before answering her own question: "We never want to forget."

*

The late Ted Watkins founded the community action committee, commonly referred to as WLCAC, to help rebuild a community ravaged by the 1965 riots. But its solid track record of nearly three decades of community development and job creation programs in Watts did not spare WLCAC when rioting broke out anew in 1992.

The building housing the exhibit was erected on the site where a hardware store and other WLCAC businesses were burned and looted in 1992.

The new building put up on that site was intended to be a warehouse, said Janine Watkins, Ted Watkins' daughter-in-law. "But we decided that in order to heal a community, we needed to have arts and culture because people in the community do not know their history."

During their post-1992 riot assessments, WLCAC leaders reflected that perhaps they had lost touch with their community and needed to reach out.

The exhibit was a way of doing that.

It had been a traveling show, funded in part by the Ford Foundation, until it made its Los Angeles stop at WLCAC in 1993, and the organization saw its impact.

"The exhibit was such an inspiration to the community, we bought the photographs to make it permanent," Watkins said. She said the organization built its own duplications of the lunch counter and other displays when it was unable to buy the originals from another sponsor.

More than 30,000 visitors have seen the show at WLCAC, Watkins said, including groups of whites from Orange County, Malibu and Van Nuys.

One of the most inspiring groups for Watkins, though, came from a school for students with learning disabilities. They climbed down from their bus spewing profanity and threats at one another, but once they were inside the exhibit, "you could see a connection," she said.

"When I started giving them their history, I had their attention," she said. "They were focused. You could see them stand a little taller, look a little different."

*

The impact that photos of Till, lynchings and police dogs had on the students was exactly the reaction Watkins had sought.

"It opened my eyes to a lot of things I really didn't know," Locke senior Joel McCoy, 17, said over lunch after the show. "I knew there was racism going on, but I didn't know it was that much."

Or that recent.

"All of this took place only 30 years ago . . . only 30 years ago," said junior Beverly Thomas, 16. The exhibit, she said, echoes with her mother's advice to become more serious about herself and her future.

Senior Timothy Jackson was making his second trip through the exhibit. "Actually I learned more this time," he said. "I've been taught by my teacher Reggie Andrews that if you don't know your history, you don't know your greatness. As we're growing, we write our history every day."

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