AUSTIN, Texas – It’s one thing to learn history through books, but it’s quite another to learn it from someone who was there. The Bullock Museum opened its newest exhibit—This Light of Ours—chronicling the work of photographers in the civil rights era.

  • New exhibit features civil rights era photographers
  • Features 9 photographers
  • Exhibit is open through May

When you think about the civil rights movement, you think about luminaries like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, their iconic speeches and historic marches, like the one from Selma to Montgomery.

While these moments are what defined the movement in our memories, to activist photographer Maria Varela it only shows a small part of the crusade.

“Marches only took up 15 percent of our time, maybe 20, at least that’s how it was for us photographers or who were SNCC field secretaries,” Varela explained. “The rest of the time we’re doing what you see ordinary people doing around here, which is organizing in their communities to get the vote.”

Before taking up the camera, Varela championed equal voting rights through her involvement in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—also known as SNCC— that sent her to Selma.

“We don’t know what her skills are, but who cares? Let’s just put her there. Which was another moment of ‘No, I don’t want to go,’” she reminisced after two activists from Selma asked for her help. “But it’s hard to say that in the face of these guys who were so brave, who had been beaten so mercilessly, put in jail.”

“I was terrified of the Klan, I was terrified of local law enforcement,” she added. “I came to terms with it. I can do this.”

There, she worked with Fr. Maurice Ouellet, who opened his church to help black people register to vote, but then she had a problem with the tools.



“The materials for adult literacy were mainly all about white middle-class life, that showed no black people doing anything and it seemed to me, ‘How can you learn to read if you didn’t feel like you belonged in the reading world?’” Varela said.

So in response to that feeling, she picked up the camera. 

“I never thought myself as an artist or as a photographer because I was surrounded by professional photographers,” she laughed. “All of a sudden, now, I’m called a photographer, so that’s my story.”

While Varela spent time with some of the civil rights’ who’s who, she focused on ordinary people. She said that ensured that their stories were not forgotten and indirectly, guaranteed their safety to exercise free speech.

“More cameras on the protest might mean less beatings or disappearance of people,” she said. “Voting is about black power. That’s what we needed to do. When we soon learned that voting was direct action because there was nothing that we didn’t do around voting that didn’t get people beaten or in jail.”

Varela is one of nine photographers featured in the Bullock Museum's exhibit which includes 150 photographs.

This Light of Ours is open to the public until the end of May.