Monday, January 17, 2011

For All The World To See: Images of The Fight For Civil Rights

By Nancy Mattoon

Emmett Till At Age 13,
One Year Before His Murder.
Photographer Unknown, 1954.

(All Images Courtesy of Center For Art, Design,
And Visual Culture-UMBC.)

"I couldn’t bear the thought of people being horrified by the sight of my son. But on the other hand, I felt the alternative was even worse. After all, we had averted our eyes for far too long, turning away from the ugly reality facing us as a nation. Let the world see what I’ve seen."

-Mamie Till Bradley, September 1955

Emmett Till In His Casket,
Photographer Unknown.
The Chicago Defender
, 1955

In what must have been an excruciatingly painful decision, Mamie Till Bradley chose to distribute an unspeakably gruesome photograph of her son's corpse to newspapers and magazines for all the world to see in late 1955. Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till had been beaten, disfigured, shot in the head, bound with barbed wire attached to a 70-pound fan, and thrown in Mississippi's Tallahatchie River by white supremacists. That single image, published only in Jet, The Chicago Defender, and other black periodicals, is considered by many to be the spark that ignited the Civil Rights Movement; the Montgomery Bus Boycott started three months later.

Lorraine Hansberry (author)
Danny Lyon (photographer)
The Movement:
Documentary of a Struggle for Equality
, 1964.
Simon & Schuster, New York

Built around that incredibly powerful image, a new traveling exhibition jointly sponsored by the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (CADVC-UMBC) and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, is the "first comprehensive museum exhibition to explore the historical role played by visual images in shaping, influencing, and transforming the fight for civil rights in the United States." For All The World To See: Visual Culture And The Struggle for Civil Rights is comprised of over 250 objects, including posters, photographs, graphic art, magazines, newspapers, books, pamphlets, political buttons, comic books, toys, postcards, and clips from film, newsreels, and television.

Emerson Graphics.
I Am a Man, 1968.
Offset lithograph on paper

Maurice Berger, cultural historian and Research Professor at the CADVC-UMBC is the curator of the exhibition. He is also the author of eleven books on the subjects of American art, culture, and the politics of race. The exhibit he has created is far more than a collection of historic artifacts. Spend time exploring it, in person, or online, and the images are guaranteed to provoke a number of intense emotional reactions: horror, sadness, pride, admiration, and revulsion, to name only a few.

Martin Luther King at Communist Training School,
c. 1964.
Postcard Published By An Anonymous
White Supremacist Group

Race remains one of the most touchy, volatile, and avoided topics in American society. In light of his superb memoir of his own racially-charged childhood, White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness (1999), it becomes clear that Maurice Berger had a uniquely personal reason for curating For All The World To See, and for making the study of racism his life's work. Below is an excerpt from his book, detailing the polar-opposite reactions of his parents upon learning of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968:

Moments after a television news bulletin announced that Martin Luther King, Jr., was dead, my mother said he deserved to die... He was a troublemaker. He was selfish and self-serving. He was poisoning the country. He was ungrateful to those brave and foolish white people who stood by his side in the civil rights movement. He was giving all the bigots in the South a reason to hate the good schwartzes, and the Jews, and anyone else who was not like them.

Confused and frightened by her tirade that night, I excused myself. As I walked down the hall to the bedroom I shared with my sister, I heard my father sobbing... He was crying so hard he was unable to speak. His behavior frightened me even more than my mother's. I was nearly twelve years old, and I had never seen my father cry. Tears rolled down his face as his finger pointed to the radio, which blared updates on the assassination. "What a nightmare," he finally muttered. I lay down next to him, put my head on his chest, and remained there for the rest of the evening.

Fan, Evans Memorial Chapel,
Saginaw, Michigan
, c. 1968.
Offset lithograph on paper

Although I cannot explain the alchemy of it, somehow the attempt of that boy to make sense of his own racially conflicted past infuses For All The World To See. There is nothing personally connected to Berger in the show, but perhaps because American society remains so deeply damaged by racism, his documentation of the struggle against it seems both heartfelt and shockingly intimate. Because we have become so used to tiptoeing around matters of race, reminders of its profound impact on our culture have regained their shock value. We prefer to pretend America today is a colorblind society, but how could that be so given our completely separate and unequal segregated culture only a few short decades ago? The influence of that injustice cannot be erased and forgotten about, nor should it be. We all know what happens to those who cannot remember the past...

People's Press (publisher)
Frank Cieciorka (artist)
All Power To The People:
The Story Of The Black Panther Party

Pamphlet, 1970

For All The World To See is disturbing, unsettling, and profoundly sad, yet somehow inspiring and hopeful, too. The exhibit shows the worst of America, and the best of America, side by side. Only by exploring and acknowledging both can the United States hope to heal the deep wounds caused by over two centuries of racism. The scars always will remain, as they should. We must be forced to look at them from time to time, to remind us never to inflict such unbearable pain on our nation again.

1 comment:

  1. Ms. Mattoon,

    Another **excellent** post, elegiac and superbly written. And so appropriate for MLK day.

    I really love following your entries. Keep up the good work!



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