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Flashpoint 

Exhibit gathers recent history's greatest hits

Off the hallway leading to the children's section of the Main Library in downtown Charlotte is Gallery L. The double glass doors are propped open. The sign outside the door warns:IMAGES MAY DISTURB SOME VIEWERS

No kidding. This is a recap of those indelible images printed on our brains in the last half of the 20th Century. A disturbing time.

Flash! The Associated Press Covers the World is 130 photographs recording news bites from the last 75 years. Many are Pulitzer Prize winners. The show begins around 1927 with a portrait of Charles Lindbergh standing in front of his Spirit of St. Louis and ends with a whimper in the 1990s, with a laughably forlorn Tonya Harding imploring judges for a second chance at the "94 Olympics.

In between, we get a 70-year swath of life on planet Earth, courtesy of the best news photographers of the century.

A walk through the gallery will reel you from the wretched to the ridiculous with a little bit of the wonderful and miraculous mixed in to keep your knees from buckling. It's a show to see alone first, then again with friends or family so you can say, "I remember when I first saw this picture -- I was 14 and there were riots going on downtown..."

Images of the American experience dominate the show. Joys and horrors from Russia, Vietnam, Chechnya and Africa are also here, but it is the homegrown images that align most closely with my own life, which conspire with memory to provoke and unravel me. The Civil Rights and Vietnam eras, times which shook the ground and had many Americans holding each other by the throat, are well documented. Those times made these times look gray. Times were never again so clearly us and them, pro and con, black and white.

The picture of James Meredith is black and white. Meredith, the first black man to enroll in the University of Mississippi, is stretched out on a sun-soaked strip of asphalt crawling for the shoulder of the road, screaming. Meredith was felled by a shotgun blast while marching from Memphis to Jackson, MS, in 1966. This photograph brought the struggle for equality to breakfast tables across the country, underscoring the violent, often lethal, resistance the freedom marchers faced as they walked, or dragged, themselves toward a better America.

Meredith fared better than many. After having 60 pellets picked out of his head, neck and back, he completed his march.

In 1972, Huynh Cong "Nick" Ut walks toward a blockade in South Vietnam when a firewall of napalm lands down the road. Terrified children run down the road toward him. A naked girl, her clothes burned off, runs down the center of the road, her arms held away from her body, hands flopping as if she is attempting to take flight. She wails soundlessly. America's silent majority could have done without this photograph. How many could look at this photograph and not think: "Maybe we've done enough for these people... perhaps we should leave"? Three years later, our country followed this girl on down the road and out of Vietnam.

Some images are indelible calendar photographs of memory. The self-immolating Buddhist monk protesting the war on a busy Saigon street. The flag-raising at Iwo Jima. The South Vietnamese Chief of Police executing a prisoner in the street, his pistol held at point blank range, the POW's face twisted in one last twitch of life, his executioner's face an exhausted mask of bored contempt. Marilyn Monroe's skirt caught in a naughty updraft, her face the coy reflection of a whole country's attempt at posing both innocent and surprised at her own lusty power. Were we really so willingly naive? She could set us longing for days we never had.

These are immemorial images cut into our brains like first kisses or first slaps. There are other images of our world here less apt to fire our collective memory buttons, but no less fearsome or ebullient or sorrowful.

Or silly. Russian President Boris Yeltsin dances at a rock concert during his reelection campaign. He looks like a junior high school girl fist fighting with an imagined foe. He grooves on stage along with two leggy Russian boppers; all eyes are on him as he bites down on his lower lip mimicking a constipation grimace. He's the new Red Scare. Photographer Alexander Zemlianichenko won the Pulitzer for this one. Salut!

"Waiting to Vote" by Dennis Ferrell captures a line of people waiting to vote in South Africa's first all-race elections at a polling station in Soweto. The shot is from above. Hundreds of citizens patiently stand in the sun on a barren savanna. The line snakes in twists and turns. It is a portrait of people to whom voting matters, whose new civic lives depend on the promise of self-determination, who are willing to participate for a change. Jaded and sated Americans, take note.

Heavyweight champion Cassius Clay stands above former heavyweight champion Sonny Liston and dares him to stand. In this fight, Liston was dropped in the first round with a right to the jaw. Liston stares back at Clay impassively, his arms spread over his head as if resting. No sane man would rise in the face of this wild and invincible young Cassius Clay, who howls with the joy of unfettered domination. Liston is not indecisive. He knows he will not get up.

Other 20th century luminaries are profiled here. Mother Teresa holds an armless child, the infant's tiny head held in a hand so loose and wrinkled it looks like an oversized skin glove. They smile at each other.

Frank Sinatra in 1943 is surrounded by a laughing crew of adoring women. Frank is so skinny he looks like a cross between a praying mantis and his future self. He's the only one in the picture not laughing, and looks, from his expression, like he may be the butt of a joke. The future Frank won't let that happen.

Flash! The Associated Press Covers the World was curated by the Newseum, the interactive museum of the news in Arlington, VA. The show runs through November 30 at the Main Library, 310 N. Tryon St. If you're over 20, come see riveting news bites from your past. If you're younger, come see what you missed.

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