Every movement, if it is to be successful, must tap into a source of cultural power.
The Civil Rights movement tapped into several, not the least of which was the power of imagery — demonstrated in great detail in the exhibit “For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights” at the Civil War Museum now through August 11.
One way to keep a people down, as the exhibit vividly presents, is to show only negative or placid images of them. Show them as Aunt Jemima, as characters in the “Song of the South,” in which plantation life was idealized, although the movie itself, as other images show, was the subject of protests and demonstrations outside of theaters.
The Civil Rights movement, which ostensibly began with the Montgomery (Ala.) bus boycott, (Dec. 5, 1955-Dec. 26, 1956) although in reality it started much earlier, was fueled in part by a different set of images. African-Americans were shown as white America had never seen them before, peacefully protesting the injustices that they had long endured.
“For All the World to See” captures the power of the camera, of toys and games, of comedies and comedians, of singers, of everyday people to change the way African Americans are viewed.
It shows the bigger names — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harry Belafonte, Minister Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Gordon Parks — as it chronicles the journey of social change, as slow and as halting as it was at times.
It captures events, steps and missteps – the savage attacks by Birmingham (Ala.) authorities on peaceful demonstrators, the August 1963 March on Washington, members of the Nation of Islam on trial on charges of assaulting a police officer in L.A., the “Julia” TV show starring Diahann Carroll as the dignified, intelligent title character, the Memphis (Tenn.) garbage workers strike that eventually led to the assassination of Dr. King in 1968.
If the exhibit, tucked away upstairs at the museum, seems unfinished or incomplete, it is because the movement is unfinished and incomplete. It continues to this day, or at least it should.
A Courageous Conversation sponsored by the Coalition for Dismantling Racism will broach that subject at 6 p.m. July 30 the Civil War Museum. Our event will be called: “The Civil Rights Movement — Then and Now.”
An intergenerational panel will look at the past, present and future of the movement with an eye on the need for it to be revitalized and refocused if necessary. There will be time for audience participation around the issues brought up by the panel.
The event is free and open to the public. We encourage you to come join us.
Jim Lynch is pastor of St. John’s and Holy Nativity Lutheran Churches in Kenosha and a member of the Coalition for Dismantling Racism and the Greater Milwaukee Synod antiracism team.