Many of the images and artifacts that relate to the Civil Rights Era have without question left an indelible impression on American consciousness.
How much more emotion was stirred then — and even now — when people viewed the photograph of Emmett Till’s disfigured body in a casket or the horrifying images of lynched Black men. And how inspiring is the image of Rosa Parks defying segregation laws by sitting upfront riding a public bus; or the picture of sanitation workers standing outside Clayborn Temple in Memphis in 1968, in which the men assembled carried “I Am a Man” placards. This visual documentation possesses a truthfulness and power that can arouse myriad feelings, while at the same time bring to the fore the realization of the tragedies and triumphs they represent.
The exhibit “For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights,” which is now on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and runs through November 2011, offers viewers such an experience. Organized by the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture (CADVC) at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in partnership with Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, “For All the World to See” examines the role visual media has played in changing ideas about race in America.
“The role of visual media in combating racism is rarely included in the history of the movement,” says Maurice Berger, curator of the exhibit and senior research scholar at CADVC. “ ‘For All the World to See’ looks at images in a range of cultural outlets and formats, tracking the ways they represented race in order to alter beliefs and attitudes. The vast majority of museum exhibitions about the modern movement center on the role of photographs in documenting the struggle. As such, a disproportionate amount of credit has been given to white photographers, many of whom worked for mainstream magazines and newspapers, organizations that often shut out Black journalists and photojournalists. ‘For All the World to See’ demonstrates how images themselves were potent agents of change — warriors, to paraphrase the great photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks, in the battle against racism and segregation in America.”
In so doing, Berger notes, “The project reveals the powerful and widespread efforts of the African-American people to take charge of their own representation, to produce images powerful enough to convince a nation of the dire problem it then lived with and to embolden and empower a community long hampered by stereotypes in the culture at large, negative images that also helped to perpetuate white people’s negative view of African-Americans.”
The exhibition features more than 225 objects, including rare and vintage footage from documentary programs and nationally broadcasts TV shows such as The Beulah Show, East Side/West Side, Julia and Good Times; the covers of pictorial magazines such as The Crisis and Sepia; and books like The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality, with text by playwright Lorraine Hansberry. To help viewers put the various visuals into a context, the exhibit is organized into five sections, with titles that include “It Just Keeps Rolling Along: The Status Quo,” which looks at visual culture in regards to its birth of the Civil Rights Movement and the power of the images to perpetuate stereotypes, prejudice and complacency. Other sections are: “The Culture of Positive Images”; “Let the World See What I’ve Seen: Evidence and Persuasion”; “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: Broadcasting Race”; and “In Our Lives We Are Whole: The images of Everyday Life.”
Berger says that the project took six years to complete, from the beginning of his research to the opening in New York last year. He points out there are actually two versions of the exhibition: the larger, full-dress exhibition will run for from May 2010 through July 2013 and has six to seven geographically diverse venues; a smaller, lower security version will travel to about 35 more venues, mostly smaller and midsize institutions across the country, over a five-year period from 2012 to 2017.
The rise of pictorial magazines and the birth of television in the mid-20th century have indeed given rise to a visual revolution. In today’s age of digital media and mass social networking, one wonders whether our modern society has come to rely on visual images more than ever before for information. Berger contends that if the word held the greatest authority to alter and shape public opinion in the 19th century, modern technologies for the visual depiction of the world emerged as the most persuasive force for shaping public opinion, a period co-extensive with the birth of the modern Civil Rights Movement. “The power of visual images has not abated in the intervening sixty years,” he says. “And the Internet means that even more images — combined with the still powerful medium of television — make their way into our daily lives.”
To mount such a large-scale exhibition, where the research and organization of materials represent the people and a culture that has been ignored and marginalized, is bound to have weathered its share of challenges. “For All the World to See” has been no exception. Berger says that the greatest challenge was convincing potential venues for the show that it was not your traditional civil rights exhibition. “Sometimes museums — almost always mainstream institutions — would dismiss the show without even reading the venue materials we sent them,” he says. “One institution in Los Angeles rejected the show, stating bluntly, ‘Oh, we just had a show of civil rights photographs,’ having no clue that the exhibition contained a broad range of images and objects from television and magazines to toys and advertisements.”
“For All the World to See” was recently named the Outstanding Exhibition in a University Art Museum 2010 by the Association of Art Museum Curators. Reaction from the public as well as the press to the show has been phenomenal. Berger says, “Many visitors become very emotional in the exhibition, some reliving their own past. Others were awed by the brilliance and bravery of the visual culture of civil rights.”