Righting America

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“Upheaval!”: Ku Klux Klan Rallies and Kent State Protests at the Cleveland Photo Fest | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Photo of picture frame that has two photos with one being an invitation to a  Ku Klux Klan meeting and another showing various members hanging up a wooden cross.
Photo of a picture of a picture frame that has a photo of headmaster of the Ku Klux Klan walking in a field.
Images from Richard Margolis’ exhibit Upheaval, 2019. Reproduced with permission from the artist.

At its most basic level, history involves (as one of my mentors, Paul Conkin, used to say) trying to tell true stories about the past. This is much harder than it might seem, in part because history is not a neat and linear story of progress, but is, instead, a jumbled mix of the contingent, with contrary events and movements occurring very near to each other in time and space. 

So, how does one tell a true story about the 1960s, given all of the different stories, given all the contradictions, contained in that decade? All of this comes home at a remarkable exhibition that has just opened as part of the first annual Cleveland Photo Fest. Here is photographer Richard Margolis’ description of his show: 

Upheaval is an exhibition of contemporary prints from film that’s half a century old. These are new photographs, not just new copies, but new kinds of prints from existing negatives, many never before printed. This show includes a small slice of photographs mostly from two subjects: Ku Klux Klan rallies photographed in 1965 & 1966, and anti-war rallies at Kent State University in 1970. They may seem unrelated, but they were only 45 miles and 4 years apart, and other than the hair styles and clothing, they could be from today’s news. To me that is the power of these photographs.

On Sunday Sue and I had the privilege of attending the show’s opening reception at the charming little Images Photographic Art Gallery in Lakewood, Ohio. While readers can get some sense of the power of Margolis’ photographs from the photos included here, there is no substitute for seeing the physical photos. And these photographs are particularly powerful put into this one small space. Here we have very human Klansmen and very human antiwar protesters, articulating radically different visions of what America should be, and just a few miles and years apart. It’s jarring, overwhelming, and true.

It was great to talk with the charming Richard Margolis, as well as the three organizers of the Photo Fest. But it had not dawned on us that there would be people at the reception who had been students at Kent State and on campus on May 04, 1970, the day that National Guardsmen shot thirteen unarmed students (four of whom died). These former Kent undergraduates talked about tanks in the streets of Kent, merchants who threatened to shoot students, and the horror they felt as they heard the shots on May 04. One woman, who still lives in Kent, told us she has deliberately chosen to be out of the county when the 50th anniversary comes around next year. To be in town on that day would just be too much.

And as a nation, we are not done coming to terms with the 1960s. 

Richard Margolis’ “Upheaval” will be at Images until October 12. It is worth going out of your way to visit.