Leading by Example

Benedict J. Fernandez credits his neighbors with encouraging him to get involved

with the civil rights movement of the '60s. In 1963, while he was an engineer at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, he shopped for a house in New Jersey and noticed the realtors were coming up with some pretty high quotes.

"They told me [a house] was too expensive, and they always added a zero to the price," recalls Fernandez, who is Hispanic. "When I got wise, I said 'Aarismaa,' my wife's maiden name, and $180,000 became $18,000." Fernandez may have used his wife's Estonian name while shopping, but when it came time to close on a house, he signed his own name. At that point there was nothing the realtor could do.

His neighbors, however, were another story. When he moved in, some threw rocks, bricks, and eggs at his house, and Fernandez kept quiet. But after the brake lines of his car were cut, he went to the police, who agreed to charge the perpetrator with malicious mischief. Attempted murder is more like it, Fernandez told the cops.

"Then the police threatened to take me to court for character assassination, because I was telling them what their job was," he says. "I realized I really had no protection from the government or law enforcement. But I had a choice of weapons, and the camera became my weapon."

Fernandez was 26 years old at the time, and he'd been fiddling around with a camera part-time. But after he lost his Navy job and experienced racism firsthand, he launched a photojournalism career. His first assignment: shooting pictures of Boy Scouts at the 1964 New York World's Fair.

"For the first three years, I got nowhere, but I was so angry that I had to do something," Fernandez says. Soon he was taking pictures of civil rights demonstrations. When Allen Ginsberg demonstrated outside of a women's detention center in Greenwich Village carrying a sign that read, "Pot Is Fun," Fernandez got the shot, which became a popular poster. When Tom Cornell and others burned their draft cards in New York's Union Square, Fernandez was there, and the New York Times bought the pictures.

By 1967 he was covering ACLU protests, and much of his work was being used by the Canadian Broadcasting Company. "They asked me to do a book with Dr. King called Trumpets of Freedom," Fernandez says. His pictures were to accompany King's words. So Fernandez was able to spend time with King in public and at home. Once, while he was dining with the King family, Fernandez and King talked about how much they loved spicy foods while their dinner companions washed hot peppers down with glass after glass of water.

Fernandez got so close to the family that, after King was assassinated in 1968, he was given special access to the funeral. At one point he predicted that King's daughter Bernice would break free from her mother's grasp and run to the casket. He caught the moment on film but refused to release it to the media without the family's permission. For years he kept the photo stashed, until he ran into Bernice, who told him that he could do whatever he wanted with it.

That photograph, along with others Fernandez shot in '67 and '68, is on view in "Kennedy and King: An American Dream" at the Palm Beach Photographic Centre. The show also features the work of Jacques Lowe, who is well-known for his intimate portraits of John F. Kennedy. Both photographers will talk about their work and their relationships with their subjects at the show's opening reception October 2.

Soon after King was assassinated, Fernandez left photojournalism to teach and work creatively. By that time he'd already left his mark -- internationally and in his own neighborhood, which he hasn't left in 35 years. "I received a Guggenheim [Fellowship]," Fernandez says, "and the mayor presented me with a proclamation saying how proud they were to have me as a part of the community."

-- John Ferri

"Kennedy and King: An American Dream" will be on view from October 2 through December 31 at the Palm Beach Photographic Centre Museum and Gallery, 55 NE Second Ave., Delray Beach. The 5:30 p.m. opening reception costs $10; exhibition admission is $3. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Call 561-276-9797.

 
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