Across the two lanes of Walker Avenue, four little boys sat on the curb looking intently toward the hill near Northwest 7th Street to see what would come next.
A long, black limousine — the kind you see delivering Oscar winners to the red carpet — moved slowly down the pavement toward the boys. Inside sat older people, dressed in their Sunday best. As their car rolled, the occupants reached out the windows and waved.
A magnetic sign on one car door said simply, “MLK Sit-Inners.”
From my vantage point, I could see the look on the face of one boy across the street. He had read the sign, and he looked at the people in the big car.
If the look on his face said anything, it seemed to be: ”Who is this? And why are they waving at me?” His was the look of a boy witnessing something for the first time.
That’s when I pressed the shutter release and made the photograph.
My joy in photography comes from capturing the emotion of a moment. It is my derivation of famous photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “capturing the decisive moment.” I judge photographs of my own (and those of others) by how well an image shows emotion, be it sadness, happiness, fear or surprise.
Or, as was the case Monday morning along the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Parade route in Oklahoma City, a look of wonder on the face of a little boy.
That moment came near the end of a full day of photographing events, beginning with the Silent March that originated at the Freedom Center on Martin Luther King Boulevard and headed down 23rd Street to the Oklahoma History Center on a chilly morning — but one not as cold as last year’s march.
‘We will be free someday’
Near the start of the day’s events, Marilyn Luper Hildreth took the Freedom Center microphone to speak.
When she was a child, there were no parades decrying racial discrimination or honoring civil rights leaders.
She is the daughter of Clara Luper, the Dunjee High School history teacher (we have a history of teachers marching for what is right, don’t we?) who led 13 children, ages 6 to 16, who sat down at the Katz Drug Store lunch counter in 1958 and refused to abide by the racial segregation that plagued our public places and forced certain citizens to receive their food in brown paper bags passed out the back door — all because of the color of their skin.
Hildreth, then age 10, was one of those children, and on Monday she was among those made honorary parade marshals who rode downtown to Main Street — the street where Katz had been.
I wondered what look had been on her 10-year-old face in 1958. What look had her face held when people spit and yelled and told her to get out?
On Monday, Hildreth remembered her mother’s message from that time.
“My mother taught me to believe in the sun when the sun didn’t shine. To believe in the rain when the rain didn’t fall. And to believe in a God that I’ve never seen,” she said. “So when we will be free? We will be free someday.”
The look I photographed of Hildreth on Monday was a smile, but one with determination. The kind people have when they know they are doing something important. And right.
Stand, turn and greet someone
Overall, the parade was a joyful afternoon. Balloons and bands. Colorful cars and candy. And I couldn’t help but think in my very old white-man brain that the problems of racial discrimination had been neatly boxed up and buried beneath a glass and steel skyscraper situated somewhere near Main Street. A fitting ending worthy of a parade.
But that isn’t true. This week’s parade was only a momentary pause. Yes, it was indeed important recognition of Luper, Hildreth and, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr., It reminded us of the Sit-Inners who set in motion important changes.
Still, our news headlines announce the disproportionate incarceration of black men in our prisons. There are hints of bigotry in our political messages. The symbolism of white supremacy in our historical monuments is a reality. And I won’t even begin to say anything about white privilege, which is a topic deserving of its own 800-word essay.
But on Monday, there was also a reality occurring during ceremonies I photographed at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
There, a gathering of all races sat in the pews for a panel discussion about the history of the civil rights movement in Oklahoma City and a reading of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963.
Before that happened, Fox 25 producer Tonya McCleary had expertly portrayed Harriet Tubman to open the ceremony. Also serving as the emcee of the program, McCleary took the podium and asked this congregation to stand, turn and greet someone in the room who was of a different skin color than themselves.
They did. And that’s when I pressed the shutter release and made the photograph.
I didn’t need to look at the display on the back of my digital camera.
The look I knew I had on my own face was enough to know I had captured the emotion of the moment.