Jasper, Texas: The Hidden Half of a Small Texas Town

Parade, 1950s

J.H. Rowe High School Marching Band Led by Annie Clyde Dacus, ca. 1958-59

Jesse Brook (Second From Left) and Others Dancing, 1950s

Wedding Preparations, Bonnie Mitchell and Her Sister Ida Mae Mitchell, 1957

James Byrd Jr. (central portrait), 1967 Graduate of J. H. Rowe High School

Jasper, Texas: The Hidden Half of a Small Texas Town

In 1998, the small East Texas town of Jasper was shaken by the brutal, racially motivated killing of a forty-nine-year old African American named James Byrd Jr. The international coverage of that traumatic race-crime did not, for the most part, reveal the stark past and complicated social life of this historically segregated community. For example, little notice was paid to the photographs of Alonzo Jordan (1903-1984), a local photographer who had made Byrd’s high school graduation portrait, and who had worked for more than forty years to document African Americans in Jasper and in the surrounding rural areas. Jordan’s photographs are the subject of an exhibition, Jasper, Texas: The Community Photographs of Alonzo Jordan, presently on view at The International Center of Photography in New York City from January 21 to May 8, 2011.

Like many small-town photographers, Alonzo Jordan fulfilled various roles in the community. A barber by trade, Alonzo Jordan was also a Prince Hall Mason, a deacon in his church, an educator and a local leader, who took up photography to fill a social need he recognized. Over the years, he chronicled the everyday world of black East Texas, especially the civic events and social rituals that were integral to the daily life of the people he served. In addition to revealing the African American culture of Jasper during the Civil Rights era, this exhibition challenges existing formalistic approaches to the study of vernacular photography. It considers Jordan’s distinguished career as a “community photographer.”

In communities across the nation, photographs of this kind have been proudly displayed for decades in people’s homes, local churches, businesses, civic buildings and schools, because they document groups and individuals who are held in high esteem. Frequently, the photographer is not identified or credited, because the emphasis is upon the family, social and professional groups, and the recognition of the community infrastructure.

Jasper’s Journey: The Life of James Byrd Jr.

Slide Show: Jasper, Texas/The Hidden Half of a Small Texas Town

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In the Name of Faith and Love: For The Bible Tells Me So

In the Name of Faith and Love: For The Bible Tells Me So

An NPR Audio Discussion of For The Bible Tells Me So:

The Bible is the word of God through the word of human beings, speaking in the idiom of their time, and the richness of the Bible comes from the fact that we don’t take it as literally so that it was dictated by God,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.

Can the love between two people ever truly be an abomination? Is the schism that separates gay and lesbian persons from Christianity destined to be always too wide to cross? How can the Bible be used to justify hatred? These are the questions that are at the heart of For The Bible Tells Me So, an exploration of the religious right’s use of the Bible to justify shutting gay and lesbian people out of the faiths into which they’ve been born and in which they’ve grown up. One of the central figures in For The Bible Tells Me So is Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the first-ever openly gay man to be elected a Bishop of the Episcopalian Church. Robinson’s consecration in 2003 (at which he had to wear a bullet-proof vest due to death threats against him) was a historical occasion, but also one that caused a rift within the Episcopal church. On a more personal level, the consecration was the quintessential moment of the path on which Robinson had first embarked some 20 years earlier when, with the support of his then-wife, Isabella, he came out of the closet after years of attempting to live as a straight man and seeking counseling to rid himself of his “gay feelings.”

The film explores, with various historians and religious figures, including Robinson and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the use of the Bible in the religous right’s attempts to portray gay and lesbian people as being abominations against God and nature. The film seeks to both put a face on the issue of religion and gay life, and to give people dealing with family and friends who rely upon the same old Bible verses about gays a Biblical perspective of their own from which to respond. But at its heart this is a film not about historical Biblical theory, but about the real lives of families with gay and lesbian sons and daughters, and how they have reconciled their faith with their love for their children.

It also narrates the story of Chrissy Gephardt, who finally came out as a lesbian to her family just as her father, former House minority leader Richard Gephardt, was about to embark on his campaign for the Presidency. Chrissy talks about enduring a sexless marriage to a man before falling in love with a lesbian friend, admitting the truth about herself, coming out and eventually joining her father on the campaign trail, with his support and encouragement.

The film also introduces the Poteats, an African-American family in which both parents are preachers still struggling to accept that their daughter, Tonia, is a lesbian. David Poteat, Tonia’s father, says in the film that when his children (a son and a daughter) were growing up, “I said God, please don’t let my son grow up to be a faggot and my daughter a slut.” He chuckles ironically and adds, “And he did not. He did not do that. He reversed it.” The Poteat family story resonates with the unmistakable sounds of truth, love, and pain. These are parents who have struggled to accept their daughter as a lesbian, but still love her immensely and have never cut off their relationship with her. But the Poteats aren’t all the way there yet. Tonia speaks longingly of a day when her parents would willingly and gladly come to her wedding with her partner. But at least they are working on it, and they haven’t rejected their daughter.

The film avoids demonizing the religious right, instead simply holding up the families who are at the heart of the story and saying: Here they are. These are the gay people you so fear, and they are your sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters, the neighbors you’ve known for years. It speaks to the central point of the religious right’s objection to homosexuality without attacking those who hold those beliefs.

For The Bible Tells Me So made its world premiere in competition at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. The film was also honored with Audience Awards at the 2007 Seattle and Provincetown International Film Festivals and The Kathleen Bryan Edwards Award for Human Rights at the 2007 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. This provocative, entertaining film concisely reconciles homosexuality and a literal interpretation of Biblical scripture. It offers healing, clarity and understanding to anyone who desperately feels caught in the crosshairs of scripture and sexual identity.

For The Bible Tells Me So

There were many responses to the classroom killing of Larry King in Oxnard, California, and the ongoing violence against gay people that it so tragically represented, which included the now well-known statement that was made by Ellen DeGeneres on her television program. Be A Voice Against Violence is a Public Service Announcement video calling for all of us to take a stand against violence. The video includes appearances by Ashanti, Andre 3000, TR Knight, and Janet Jackson and was also created in response to the Larry King murder:

Be A Voice Against Violence

Remember The National Day of Silence on April 25, 2008. This year, The National Day of Silence is dedicated to the memory of Lawrence King:

The Day of Silence: Dedicated to the Memory of Lawrence King

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Ellen DeGeneres Speaks about the Killing of Larry King

Fellow Students at Larry King’s Memorial Service in Port Hueneme, California

Larry King’s memorial service was attended by more than 500 people in Port Hueneme, California. The service drew a diverse group of mourners who said that the killing had touched them deeply. Several students wore buttons bearing his picture. Lawrence “Larry” King was remembered Friday as a sensitive child, who on one recent Christmas helped his mother crochet hundreds of scarves so that U.S. troops in Afghanistan wouldn’t be without a holiday gift. “God knit Larry together and made him wonderfully complex,” the Rev. Dan Birchfield of Westminster Presbyterian Church told the crowd as he stood in front of a large photograph of the victim. “Larry was a masterpiece.”

The memorial service was a somber hourlong reflection on King’s life as a boy growing up in and around Oxnard, California. It was also a chance for his family, seated in a front row of Westminster Presbyterian Church, to offer a fuller portrait of the boy. King came to the public’s attention in the days after the classroom killing when it was revealed that another boy had targeted him after a falling out between the two about King’s sexual orientation.

The shooting has stunned residents of Oxnard, a laid-back middle-class beach community just north of Malibu. It has also drawn a strong reaction from gay and civil rights groups.

Ellen DeGeneres Speaks about the Killing of Larry King

Be a Voice Against Violence

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