Through a Lens, Clearly: The Civil Rights Movement in the Camera's Eye

Ernest C. Withers, striking sanitation workers assembling for a solidarity march, Memphis, March 28, 1968, from the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution.
Striking sanitation workers assembling for a solidarity march,  holding signs reading “I AM A MAN,” Memphis, March 28, 1968. Photography by Ernest C. Withers, from the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution.

By Gail Friedman

It has been more than 50 years since television news and picture magazines began bringing into American living rooms a spate of searing images from Little Rock, Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, and Washington, D.C., heightening the visibility and urgency of the struggle by black Americans to secure a full measure of civil rights, and galvanizing the conscience of a nation.  Two generations have come to maturity since that era.

“For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights,” a traveling exhibit sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and now hosted by the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania,  documents and interprets the integral role of visual imagery in the civil rights movement, the first comprehensive exploration of its kind.  These images afford access to a narrative that may be unfamiliar to many viewers, and one that is hard to convey.

Professor Deborah Willis speaking at the Mercer Museum on the role of visual media in movements for change, photo by Gayle Shupack, Mercer Museum
Professor Deborah Willis speaking at the Mercer Museum on the role of visual media in movements for change, photo by Gayle Shupack, Mercer Museum

“It’s difficult to relive this story, but it’s also important to tell,” said Deborah Willis, a senior consultant to the exhibit and university professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “Young people don’t know how to read the story because it’s so difficult. They can see there was truly a collective effort….It’s not taught in the classroom.  It’s an opportunity to use museums for labs for things that are cut out of the curriculum.” 

“I see photographs as text,” she continued in an interview following her September 27 gallery talk on the wider history of African-American photography. “Young people have short attention spans. Giving them images offers opportunities to look at them and ask questions.”

Upon entering “For All the World to See,” the visitor is greeted by a question: “Can a camera trigger social change?” The exhibit proves that it can, and did.

Photographs, magazines, and art are displayed in vitrines and on the sides of 14 angular kiosks framed in black metal, addressing topics such as “Invisible Man, “Rousing a Sleeping Nation,” and “The Need for Heroes.”  Looped film clips of television coverage from the civil rights movement, along with performances by black entertainers on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” a popular variety show of the 1950s and 60s, play in the background. 

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a kiosk labeled, “The Power of a Photograph.” Set off by a roped approach and a warning of its disturbing nature, it holds a copy of Jet magazine carrying photos of the open-casket funeral of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago youth kidnapped and lynched on a visit to Mississippi in 1955, photos that only the African-American press would print. “Let the world see what I’ve seen,” said his mother, Mamie Till Mobley.  Taped to the lid of the casket, above Till’s unrecognizably battered face, was a photo of him. as a handsome, smiling boy.   

The Mercer has provided a multifaceted showcase for the traveling exhibit, assembling companion exhibits that draw on its own collection and local lenders, in addition to a series of special events.  This richly textured format exemplifies the ways in which a smaller museum can stretch limited resources and add artistic, local, and historical dimension.

Quilts designed by, Linda Salley, a retired educator and founding member of the Bucks County African-American Museum, flank the exhibit, incorporating traditional patterns and content. A storytelling quilt in tones of brown and green, featuring personages and events from the civil rights movement, occupies pride of place at the entrance to the exhibit.  The events scheduled in conjunction with the exhibit, in addition to Willis’ talk,  include a discussion of Leonard Bethel’s biography of civil rights activist Layle Lane, a film, “Standing on My Sisters’ Shoulders,” and a theatrical concert, “We Shall Not be Moved!”.   

The museum, founded in 1897, was initially envisioned as a comprehensive storehouse of pre-industrial American material culture. Its collection now numbers nearly 40,000 artifacts, which fall into two general categories: those related to everyday life and work in pre-industrial America and those that document regional history and culture from earliest human occupation and settlement to the present day.

Cast of the television sitcom, "Good Times," TV Guide magazine, December 14-20, 1974
Cast of the television sitcom, “Good Times,” TV Guide magazine, December 14-20, 1974

The Mercer has seized on the arrival of the traveling exhibit as an opportunity to take out of mothballs some artifacts from its vast collection that rarely see the light of day, and to provide the contextualization necessary in displaying these negative images to a modern audience, said Cory Amsler, the museum’s vice president of collections and interpretation.  “Images continue to have power in terms of America’s understanding of race.”

The traveling exhibit is a good fit for the Mercer, as it relates to founder Henry Mercer’s philosophy of the “power of objects,” noted Amsler.  “Objects and images had narrative powers that words did not.”

The Mercer’s companion exhibit is titled, “The Negative Imagery of Race: 100 Years of Stereotyping.” In a corner are glass cases containing mechanical toys, postcards, menus, programs from minstrel shows, and the like, dating mainly from the 1880s to the 1950s.  Interpretive signage explains the historical context and invites viewers to interrogate the casual racism and dehumanizing nature of these pieces of Americana. Both a video installation and a typewriter allow visitors to record their reactions to all components of the exhibit.

The subject matter of the paired exhibits at the Mercer puts one in mind of the legendary exhibit, “Mining the Museum,” held at the Baltimore Historical Society in 1992-1993.  That exhibit juxtaposed seemingly unrelated objects from the collection, such as slave shackles and silver goblets, in ways to suggest a reading of history fraught with a racial subtext.   But the items on view at the Mercer require no leap of imagination to connect the dots, as the visual and material culture offer stark, direct evidence of the presence of racism and the cost of mortal combat against it. 

On a recent sunny Saturday afternoon, a young father visited “For All the World to See” with his son, a boy of about five or six.  The pair paused in front of a kiosk featuring black sports figures.  “Do you know what you’re looking at?” the father gently asked.  On their way out, they stopped at the typewriter near the exit door to record and post their thoughts in response to the question on the bulletin board in front of them: “What do you think the world needs to see?”  “More cats. More cats!” the little boy laboriously typed. “What it does not wish to admit,” wrote his father.

“For All the World to See” is at the Mercer through October 26.  Go. Take the kids.

About “For All the World to See”

The exhibit was organized by the Center for Art, Design, and Visual Culture of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and the National Museum of African-American History and Culture of the Smithsonian Institution.  It was curated by Maurice Berger, a research professor at the university. It has been made possible through NEH on the Road, a special initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and has been adapted and is being toured by Mid-America Arts Alliance, a regional nonprofit arts organization.

GailAbout Gail Friedman:
I’m a writer, city planner, and graduate student in public history at Temple University.  I’m particularly interested in the intersection of public history and urban redevelopment.

1 Comment

  1. James A Young

    Excellent coverage by Gail Friedman and very well composed.

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