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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Reliving 1964's Freedom Summer at the Newseum

This Polumbaum photo captures the essence of the era.
Even though he had fought in the South Pacific in World War II, photographer Ted Polumbaum was always very clear about the most frightening times of his life - those occurred 50 years ago when he was photographing the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi that came to be known as Freedom Summer.

"He was much more afraid in Mississippi than he ever was in World War II," Polumbaum's widow Nyna said this past weekend at the Newseum, where she and her daughter, Judy, appeared at an Inside Media taping to talk about Polumbaum's 1964 photos for Time magazine. Those photos captured the attempt of committed young southerners and northerners to register black voters in hate-filled towns all over Mississippi.

Earlier, Nyna had given more than 200,000 of her husband's photos to the Newseum and some of the most dramatic of those shots form the basis for the institution newest exhibit 1964: Civil Rights at 50.

Polumbaum began his documenting in Ohio, where the young white and black volunteers were being trained for what they were about to encounter. "They were told the government would not be able to help them at all," Nyna said. "They should be prepared to be beaten, shot, and maybe even killed."

In actuality, 3 of the volunteers did end up losing their lives, the victims of racists who were willing to take any measure to keep blacks from being able to vote. Chillingly, one of those subjects, 21-year-old Andrew Goodman is captured in one of Polumbaum's shots of the training. "Goodman was really good at playing the brutal Southern white racist," Nyna said. "I was always amazed at the enormous maturity and incredible bravery of these young people."

Nyna said her husband said the scariest personal moments came when he first arrived and stayed at a for-whites-only motel. "He was terrified going home at night to the white motel," Nyna said. "After that, he always stayed in black neighborhoods to be safer."

There was never any question that Polumbaum, long a social activist, would seek out the dangerous Mississippi assignment. "This was something that wasn't a new idea for him. He was committed and wanted to go," Nyna said. "He always said that this was one of the transformative events of his life."

Actually, Polumbaum's career in photography was the result of a stand he made during the time of the Communist witch hunts. After he returned to Yale University (where he and Nyna met) from World War II, Polumbaum had been active in the John Reed Club, an organization which tried to bring Marxist speakers to the New Haven campus.

After college, he was working in 1954 as a television news writer when U.S. marshals came to the Polumbaum's home to arrest Ted for "subversion in education." He invoked the 5th Amendment when he was forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was immediately blacklisted from TV and had to "find a new way to make a living." He returned to his earlier love of photography and then spent decades taking pictures of some of the biggest events of the times.

Nyna said she hopes that people will be inspired by the actions captured in her husband's photos, especially young people who have no real awareness of the sacrifices made in the name of Civil Rights.
"That history, which may be very much a blank to them, is really very much alive," she said. "The struggle is not yet over. There is still much more to do."

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