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Exhibition Dates: February 17 through March 27, 2024
Reception: Friday, March 1, 2024, 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.

Jacoby Arts Center
627 E. Broadway
Alton, IL 62002

Jacoby Arts Center will showcase the award-winning work of photographer Robert J. Ellison – focusing on his coverage of the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War – during a public photo exhibition from February 17 through March 27, 2024. This exhibition is a collaboration between Lewis and Clark Community College, The Hayner Public Library District, and Jacoby Arts Center. Photos are courtesy of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. It has been an absolute pleasure working with these organizations, and we look forward to more collaborative projects in the future.

Both the exhibit and reception are free and open to the public.

The photo exhibition, originally displayed at Lewis and Clark’s Hatheway Gallery in August 2023, mimics a journey through time in 100 photographs captured by the young photographer, who was killed in action at age 23 when a plane he was on was hit by enemy gunfire in Vietnam in March 1968.

Robert Ellison was born on July 6, 1944, in Ames, Iowa, the son of Albert Jackson “Jack” Ellison, a lieutenant in the 11th Airborne J Division, and his wife, Monticello College alumna Miriam Kindermann Ellison (later Miriam Eaton). Ellison’s great-grandfather founded the Western Military Academy in Alton, Illinois. Jack Ellison graduated from Western in 1938 and Robert followed in his footsteps, graduating in 1963. Nearly everyone of age, including two of his aunts, served in the military during World War II. In early 1945, twenty-three-year-old Lt. Jack Ellison was killed at Luzon, Philippines. Robert, six months old at the time, never met his father.

As the only surviving son of a soldier killed in World War II, Ellison was exempt from military service in Vietnam. Nevertheless, he bravely served on the front lines as a civilian photographer for Newsweek and Time, bringing captive images from overseas to the American public.

“Ellison felt compelled to record the story of American soldiers honestly,” said Ralph “Bo” Jackson, Robert Ellison’s cousin, whose dream has been to bring this exhibition to life in the Riverbend community.

Jackson said Ellison was one of 200,000 people who heard Martin Luther King, Jr. give his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C.., and was so moved that it spurred him to take an active role in the Civil Rights movement. His images follow several marches and other events throughout the 1960s, capturing the essence and energy of the times, and were published by Ebony magazine.

The Civil Rights events depicted in the display at Jacoby are the March on Washington D.C. for Jobs and Freedom, August 1963; March on Washington to End the War in Vietnam, November 1965; Selma to Montgomery March, March 1965; Murden School Segregation Protest and School Bus Protest, Crawfordsville, Georgia, June through October 1965; and Mississippi March Against Fear, June 1966. The Vietnam War categories are Preparation (Ellison practicing skydiving); Booby Trap School, also called Demolitions and Mine Warfare School; general military life; Vietnamese citizens both in rural areas and in Saigon; and the Battle of Khe Sanh.

The week following Robert Ellison’s presumed death in Vietnam, Newsweek published his Khe Sanh photos. They also printed an early obituary. Twenty-nine days after Robert Ellison’s plane went down, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Ebony magazine devoted their entire May 1968 issue to Dr. King, but also included a moving tribute to Ellison. “He was a young white man who lived as Dr. King hoped all white men would live—free of prejudice, full of understanding, and respectful of the rights of all men. The world mourns Dr. King. Only the few who knew him mourn Bob. We feel that Dr. King would insist that he be given this space.”

Later this year, Lacy McDonald, Genealogy & Local History Library Manager, will put the photos and captions together for a limited-printing, noncirculating book that will be added to library collections at The Hayner Public Library District, Lewis and Clark Community College, the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, the Springfield Community Center (Crawfordville, Georgia), and several other repositories.