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” events on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, an experience she later depicted in dozens of paintings. Like many other blacks, Sims was not able to vote due to long, complicated registrations forms and the poll tax.
Once, during the civil rights struggle, she was chased by a pickup truck filled with hooded Ku Klux Klansmen. Her children were among the first to integrate Brewton’s public schools. At the same time, she remained active in her community and church. Her rich life experiences were being stored, just waiting for a suitable means of expression.
At age 52, when her last child had left the nest and after knee-cap replacement surgery limited her mobility, Sims retired from her office job. She earned her GED and by 1984, began taking courses at a community college in Brewton. That year, on an art history-class field trip to the Montgomery Museum of Art, she heard about Mose Tolliver, who lived and worked nearby.
She subsequently visited Tolliver at his home in Montgomery, saw his work and the acclaim he received from it, and decided to pursue her postponed artistic dream that began in those childhood afternoons with the spinster sisters.
She drew subject material from her memories – harsh times surrounding the civil rights movement, more bucolic times living and growing up in