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Chatterton-Purdy Speaks of Icons of The Civil Rights Movement

From Nov. 16 through Nov. 24, Pamela Chatterton-Purdy’s Icons of The Civil Rights Movement exhibit was featured in the Student Union Art Gallery. Chatterton-Purdy, a University of Massachusetts M.F.A. 1966 alum, spoke about her exhibit on Tuesday at 12 p.m. in the art gallery.

The Icons of The Civil Rights Movement exhibit contained 20 icons of gold leaf on wood panel of individuals who led the Civil Rights Movement. Chatterton-Purdy believes that this exhibit connects the dots of her life.

Chatterton-Purdy’s first job was as an art editor at Ebony Magazine in Chicago, Ill., where she was one of two Caucasians in a company of 150 employees. While she worked at Ebony, the Saint Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. was bombed, killing four young girls, former President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Martin Luther King, Jr. was a frequent visitor. Many of these events were covered in the magazine and Chatterton-Purdy was responsible for the art layout for tragedies such as the St. Baptist Church bombing.

Chatterton-Purdy believes that the 1960s were an important time for the Civil Rights, and feels as though Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech set the tone for the era. Her experiences growing up, working at Ebony and participating in demonstrations have forged her interest in the movement.

Chatterton-Purdy is the mother of two biological children and two adopted children, one of whom is African-American.

Chatterton-Purdy said, “Having an adopted non-white child is like a lightening rod on top of the house for any racism.”

She told of shopping for her son when a woman asked her if her adopted child was actually hers. When she told her that it was her adopted son, the woman lectured her on how horrible that was. Her son was also beaten up against a soda machine in a convenience store by an 18-year-old white male, and she had to go through great lengths to get the boy arrested for the crime. Chatterton-Purdy explains that events like this have followed her son throughout his life.

“Everywhere I go, someone has been touched by the Civil Rights Movement,” Chatterton-Purdy said.

This statement is what sparked Chatterton-Purdy’s interest in learning more about the icons and history of the movement. In 2004, she and her husband went on Jeff Steinberg’s tours of all iconic civil rights places. They were assigned stacks of books and homework to immerse themselves in all of the events. While on this tour, Chatterton-Purdy decided to create artwork of the icons.

“What they did with non-violent protest is the holy spirit power moving these people to do what was right. These are ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” Chatterton-Purdy explained.

She started with icons such as Rosa Parks and Emmett Louis Till. Till was murdered in Money, Miss. in 1955 at the age of 14 by a Ku Klux Klan member when he said “bye babe” to a white convenience store worker. Chatterton-Purdy has used rulers surrounding his image on her painting that reach the number 14, to get the message across how devastating it is that a young life was taken away.

Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth, a Baptist minister in Birmingham, Ala. is another icon that Chatterton-Purdy has re-created. Reverend Shuttlesworth is labeled as the most courageous civil rights fighter in the south. In 1956 his house was destroyed by a bomb set off by the Ku Klux Klan. Reverend Shuttlesworth and his family survived. The next day, Reverend Shuttlesworth continued his demonstrating for the integration of Alabama public schools.  

Other icons in Chatterton-Purdy’s exhibit are Martin Luther King, Jr. and The Children’s Campaign. Her newest addition is Barack Obama, whose piece reads, “Rosa sat, so Martin could walk, Martin walks so Barack can run…”

Chatterton-Purdy’s exhibit was featured in a gallery during Barack Obama’s inauguration. According to Chatterton-Purdy, “these icons contain stories that cannot be forgotten.”     

Lisa Linsley can be reached at llinsley@student.umass.edu.

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