In the scene before me, a group of colorfully dressed civilians clash with a line of police officers who are using dogs and water hoses to tame the crowd. The water from the hoses arcs over the entire group, adding a surreal component. Could this have happened? Anyone who was born and raised in the South (or just about any other place) during the 1960s should recognize this scene from the epic struggle for civil rights. In Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor used fire hoses and dogs to quell a non-violent protest being staged by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Photographs depicting these events were in Life Magazine and on television and spotlighted the evils of segregation.
On this day in 2000, I was not viewing one of those notorious photographs, I was looking at a wonderful painting, The Birmingham Water Hose, created by an artist I had not yet heard of, Bernice Sims. In the years following my introduction to Sims’s work, I learned that this iconic image is but one of the memories that the artist has captured in her brightly colored oil or acrylic paintings.
Born in 1926 on Christmas Day in the Hickory Hill community near Georgiana, Ala., Sims lived the lifestyle typical of this rural area of southern Alabama. Despite the hard work required to sustain daily living, Sims was exposed to art early in her life. Growing up, she lived near two spinster sisters, one of whom was a painter. Sims enjoyed many afternoons watching her paint, and this piqued her interest in also becoming a painter.
Real life intervened, however. She ended up married at 16 years of age, deserted by her husband and doing office work to support her six children, and thus not having the opportunity to put paint brush to canvas. She was active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, coordinating the activities of the NAACP in Brewton, Ala., in secret because the organization at the time was outlawed by the state. She participated in voter registration drives and witnessed the violence and heartbreak as well as the triumph that those turbulent times engendered.
She took part in the famous Selma-Montgomery March and witnessed the “Bloody Sunday”