New York Photo Review
NYPR Archives - 2010


For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights
R. Wayne Parsons
Sanitation Workers Assemble in Front of Clayborn Temple for a Solidarity March, Memphis, TN, March 28, 1968 by Ernest C. Withers. Source: newyorker.com
Ernest C. Withers, "Sanitation Workers Assemble in Front of Clayborn Temple for a Solidarity March, Memphis, TN, March 28, 1968"

New York is fortunate to have the benefit of two excellent exhibitions devoted to the history of the efforts to achieve racial equality in the United States: “The Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement 1956-1968” at the Bronx Museum of the Arts and “For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights” at ICP. The exhibition at the Bronx Museum is reviewed separately in this edition of the New York Photo Review. (LINK HERE)

These two exhibitions are quite different with little overlap and complement each other effectively. “The Road to Freedom” is a traditional photojournalism exhibition highlighting many of the milestone events in this tumultuous period of our history. It’s straightforward with little ambiguity as to who the good guys and the bad guys are. The ICP show, on the other hand, is more of a sociological and historical essay using visual imagery (both still and moving), text and various other artifacts such as dolls, buttons, posters, magazines, etc. Surprisingly for a venue with “photography” in its name, there is relatively little photography per se to be seen, though much of the material, such as magazine illustrations, is photo-based. Never mind, it’s a success anyway.

The ICP show begins by exploring the racial/cultural scene in America prior to the civil rights era. An advanced degree in American Studies is not needed to know that it was terrible: the dominant image of American society was a whites-only one. To the extent that African Americans were acknowledged at all they were portrayed as inferiors in subservient roles –- cook and servant were popular choices. Aunt Jemima puts in an obligatory appearance, as do Amos and Andy, Little Black Sambo and other degrading caricatures from this period. Against this background we see attempts to create a more favorable image of African Americans; while the exhibition concentrates on the 1940s and afterward, W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1910 founding of his magazine The Crisis is the earliest effort explored here to create positive narraitives for black Americans. The 1940s and ‘50s saw an explosion of black-oriented publications, led by Johnson Publishing Company periodicals such as Ebony and Jet. At the same time popular entertainment, especially music and sports, led the way in providing opportunities for black personalities to enter American life as success stories in their own right. The clips of black performers on Ed Sullivan’s popular variety show are a nostalgia trip for those of us old enough to remember and an education for those not.

Yet further progress was not achieved without the violence and sacrifice of the most active phase of the civil rights movement beginning in the 1950s, and some of the most significant of these events, such as the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi, the Birmingham protests, the Memphis sanitation workers strike and the assassination of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., are remembered here. Especially poignant is a self-published pamphlet about Emmett Till by veteran photojournalist Ernest C. Withers documenting the facts about the murder and subsequent trial and acquittal of the accused; viewers can flip through the electronic pages of this document on a monitor. Withers is also represented in this exhibition with his justly famous photo of striking Memphis sanitation workers carrying the “I am a man” signs.

Sepia Magazine, November 1959 by unidentified photographer.
"Sepia Magazine, November 1959"

One of the highlights of this exposition is the juxtaposition of two items from different parts of the show. A 1942 poster extolling the virtues of American democracy “where every boy can dream of being President” shows an all-white classroom of attentive boys. Contrast this with a 47 second clip from a 1963 filmed dialog between James Baldwin and several young black men. One of the men asserts that there will never be a black president of the US. Baldwin says there will, but that it won’t be the same country as now; he also chides the young man for his attitude, noting that he is in effect agreeing with people who say he is inferior. One can only admire Baldwin’s perceptive, prescient understanding of American society and regret that he did not live to see the results of the 2008 election.

Mention should also be made of a 2 minute excerpt of an interview of Malcolm X on a Chicago TV station. The white interviewer is relentless in trying to get Malcolm to give up the legal surname of himself and his father. But Malcolm is too agile a debater to lose this round, and we come away with an admiring understanding of this articulate, forceful and passionate activist even if we may not endorse his recipe for racial justice. The wall text notes the fundamental conflict between the radically different programs of Malcolm X and M L King but unfortunately does not explore it further.

There are many minor gems in this exhibition, such as a 1931 restaurant sign announcing “WE SERVE COLORED” with “CARRY OUT ONLY” in smaller letters below; one wonders if the creator of this sign had a sense of humor. Or the undated sign from Texas proclaiming “NO DOGS NEGROES MEXICANS”, an artifact more revealing than its originator intended and fully capable of holding its own with the infamous “No Dogs or Indians Allowed” from the British Raj.

If you only have time for one, which of these two exhibitions should you make a point of seeing? Both.


For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights


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