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How Maria Varela Became One Of The 'Eyes' Of 1960s Black Student Activism

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Copyright 1965 Matt Herron, courtesy CDEA
Maria Varela was one of nine photographers who worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She took photos similar to this one, by colleague Matt Heron, which became iconic images of the 1960s civil rights movement.

From Texas Standard:

Almost 60 years since the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, the group continues to elevate the voices of young African Americans pushing for civil rights.

Now, a photography exhibit at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin looks back at SNCC's early years. Maria Varela is one of the photographers featured in the exhibit, "This Light of Ours," and was the first Latina woman to document SNCC's activism in the Black Belt South.

Varela says she was originally recruited by SNCC to work as a secretary at its Atlanta headquarters. She wouldn't have gone had she known she'd end up being an activist herself.

"That's what I was recruited to do," Varela says. "Otherwise I wouldn't have gone. I was, like, too scared. Between the Klan and local sheriffs and bugs and spiders, I mean, who'd want to do that?"

She started taking photos in 1965. But she didn't realize how important the photos would be to the movement.

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Credit Copyright 1966 Maria Varela, courtesy of CDEA
Marching children and a Mississippi State Police sharpshooter, near Jackson.

"You're just there doing the work," Varela says. "I had no idea; none of us did."

But she says the marches and protests – the things most people associate with the civil rights movement – were only a small part of what SNCC did.

"The rest of it was the hard work of building infrastructures that were trying to deconstruct apartheid," she says.

Varela was one of nine photographers for SNCC, and they documented law enforcement's use of force against protestors. Those images made their way onto SNCC posters, which became a symbol of defiance in the South, she says.

SNCC's strength is that it was run by "ordinary people, not one strong, charismatic leader," she says. Many of the early SNCC organizers were World War II veterans who came home after the war only to deal with segregation.

Varela says several images in the exhibit bring her back to the 1960s, especially ones showing the day-to-day work of organizing. And looking back fondly on that time doesn't diminish SNCC's work today. Varela says the photos remind her of important lessons she learned at the time – lessons that are valuable to activists organizing today. She says they should ask themselves: Who speaks for the voiceless? Who makes the decisions? Who benefits from their decisions?

Written by Caroline Covington.

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