Artist's project honors civil rights icons


By John Gordon
United Methodist News Service


HARWICH PORT, Mass. — When artist Pamela Chatterton-Purdy began working on her latest project depicting heroes of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, she drew on her own experiences — beginning as a civil rights activist herself in the 1960s.


Purdy and her husband, David, a retired United Methodist pastor and district superintendent, were among white people who marched hand-in-hand with African Americans fighting for racial equality. Her first job was with Ebony magazine.


The couple’s experiences grew even more personal after they adopted an African-American son and another son of African-American and Vietnamese descent.


She “connected the dots” of her experiences and her passion for civil rights in her Icons of the Civil Rights project in time for Black History Month and the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The images took her three-and-a-half months to create.


Her 16 wood and gold-leaf icons are being displayed at schools, churches and the Boston Statehouse.


“I did them from a very religious standpoint, in that I really see the Civil Rights Movement as God present in the Holy Spirit,” said Purdy, 67, who lives in Harwich Port on Cape Cod. “The Holy Spirit moved ordinary people to do very extraordinary things.


“So many of these people gave their lives for freedom.”


Both of Purdy’s latest artistic projects are shaped by dark days in U.S. history. Her first icon series dealt with the 9/11 terrorist attack. A lifelong United Methodist, she struggled with her own questions about the tragedy.


“The biggest question when that terrible thing happened called 9/11, everybody was saying, ‘Where was God?’” said Purdy. “I just needed to do icons to express the presence of God within a terrible, terrible, evil time.”


In her latest project, some of the icons note the role of children in the Civil Rights Movement — the Ku Klux Klan’s brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 and the arrest of hundreds of young demonstrators who participated in the 1963 children’s campaign in Birmingham.


She hopes her audience includes young people today “who take it for granted that blacks have as many rights as whites. They shouldn’t take it for granted,” said Purdy, “because that prize was won with a lot of blood.”


Till’s murder was the “dawn of my own awakening” of the Civil Rights Movement, said the Rev. Wesley Williams, pastor of Orleans United Methodist Church in Orleans, Mass., where the icons were shown. “I was about 9-years old when that happened. And I think it was my first experience with having to consider death in children.”


He calls the Icons of the Civil Rights Movement a “tribute to the martyrs, the witnesses” involved in the struggle. “I think that it is a perfect fusion of art and information,” he said.


Pancheta Peterson, a Cape Cod resident and activist who also saw the exhibit, says the sacrifices of civil rights activists should not be forgotten. She quoted the oft-repeated admonition that those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. “Perhaps this will jolt us back to reality,” she said.


Purdy hopes the icons will help children and young people learn more about the civil rights movement by pulling its images off the history book pages and into a different venue where they can learn and be inspired. “The fight was horrific and the price was enormous,” she said.


For more information on Purdy’s works and art show schedule, visit