The visual documentation of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement has filled books. There are photographs of Rev. Martin L. King preaching from the pulpit; stills of Sidney Poitier becoming a leading man. And there are films of black and white Americans marching in the South and being met by police dogs and batons.
Some images galvanized those outside America’s South and around the world. A modest seamstress, Rosa Parks, being fingerprinted after she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger in Alabama. A figure that used to be a 14-year-old boy, Emmett Till, after his murder in 1955. And the bombed rubble of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham where four schoolgirls were murdered.
Maurice Berger, a cultural historian, has brought together some of these images, using the context of how they awoke some people to injustices, let others know the movement was not of strangers but kin, and slowly, and purposefully, changed the images of black Americans.
“For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights” was organized by the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland,Baltimore County. Berger, who is a research professor at the university, partnered with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The exhibition, which opens Friday, is occupying the museum’s temporary gallery at the National Museum of American History.
Berger took the words of Mamie Till Mobley, Emmett Till’s mother as his own mantra. Setting a brave example, Mobley distributed the photo of her son’s mutilated body to the media, saying she wanted to “let the world see what I’ve seen.”
The picture jolted the country, and Berger.
“The stories told of the civil rights movement were based on photos in Life and Look,” he said, recalling how he started collecting the era’s materials. Examining them from his perspective, he recognized an overlooked skill of the civil rights organizers. “I discovered the movement was much more in charge of its image than widely thought,” said Berger. “The civil rights movement was the first American political movement to take advantage of the changing visual culture and pictorial magazines and television’s expanding evening news.”
The show gathers posters, television and movie clips, photographs and newspapers---230 examples in all from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s-- to underscore the affects of these images. A section is devoted to the growth of the black pictorial magazine (Ebony, JET, Tan and Sepia), the work of photographers Roy DeCarava, Robert Sengstack, Moneta Sleet and historic film of Jackie Robinson’s first game in the Major Leagues. One proponent of the direct action of the arts was the great photographer Gordon Parks. He plainly spoke of using his camera as a weapon. Another skillful documentarian, Berger said, was Malcolm X, who routinely carried his camera with him.
These cultural warriors had a lot to correct. The show takes an interesting tactic by grouping some stereotypical materials --the grinning black child eating watermelon--as “Racial Nostalgia.” Included in this section are segregation signs--”No Dogs, Negroes, Mexicans”--and clips from “The Beulah Show,” the 1952 series with the great actresses in demeaning parts.
To counteract those stereotypes, black businessmen started
a series of publications to show how black celebrities, academic achievers and playwrights and artists lived. And they protested. In 1947 people picketed outside the theatres showing Disney’s “Song of the South.”
Some image changing took a long time. In one corner is a segment of an interview James Baldwin conducted with a group of young black men in 1963. The kids told Baldwin he was wrong about the country electing a black president in the future. Baldwin says “You are agreeing with white people who say you aren’t good.”
Each show that is sponsored by the African American museum, which is scheduled to open in 2015, shows the thematic directions the museum might take. “It is important for us as a museum to take the stories you think you know and show them through a different lens,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, the founding director of the museum. Reviewing some of the familiar images, Bunch said he began “to understand how slowly but surely black folk began to claim the images and in that way claim their Americanism.”
Berger, in building the collection at the university, scoured auction sites. “I wanted things that were part of everyday life. And I wanted visual objects that had the ability to change public opinion, ’’said Berger, who grew up in the Bernard Baruch Houses in New York and graduated from Hunter College, where he taught and ran the gallery. He’s been at Baltimore since 1992.