Art and civil rights: UT sees what all the world has seen

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act, outlawing public segregation and racial discrimination in employment. A year later he would sign the Voting Rights Act, which took aim at barriers that made it harder for black Americans to cast their votes. These two pieces of legislation form a cornerstone of civil rights in America, but they were not top down acts of leaders. These two pieces of legislation were enacted through years and years of organizing by black Americans who pushed for a more equal society.

For these pieces of legislation, media played an important role in shaping the public opinion.

The traveling exhibit, For All the World to See,  has parked at the University of Tennessee. The exhibit chronicles the role media played in portrayals of black Americans and the push for civil rights. Exploring many different facets of black liberation, the exhibit covers everything from stereotypes to television’s role in showing the struggle to the world.

The exhibit traces black representation in media and the change in portrayals that Americans saw. One area shows the poster for Walt Disney’s Song of the South, a highly controversial film. The poster contains a character, Uncle Remus, a simple black plantation worker, surrounded by various animated animals in Walt Disney’s classic style. A bright orange background and colorful scenery surrounds Remus. In stark contrast, next to the poster is a picture of black Americans protesting the release of Song of the South for its portrayal of black Americans as simple, willing servants to whites. The year was 1947.

Not all portrayals of the time were negative though. The exhibit shows positive examples of black Americans in the media such as the widely popular Ebony magazine. The stylized covers are instantly recognizable. Solid colored backgrounds with the familiar red block with the magazines names in white letters marked the rise of the magazine aimed toward black Americans. The covers of Ebony magazine show black Americans living middle class lives, in contrast with many white owned properties that showed black Americans in subservient roles. Ebony’s “Golden Age” as the exhibit calls it, was during the 1950s.

Ever present is the projection of a looping highlight reel of black singers and performing artists throughout the years. James Brown, Lou Rawls, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5, to name a few, play some of their most famous songs in a whirlwind of images from the black and white 1950s to the vibrant atmosphere of the 1970s. These images form a narrative. Once confined to musical styles of white people, black Americans were creating their own music, helping shape the culture of America.

No exhibit would be complete without showing how the media played a role in civil rights. Two areas of the room explore media during this movement. The first covers a more militant approach as seen through the lense of the Black Panther Party. Emory Douglass, the Black Panther’s minister of culture, made many posters for the party to distribute in efforts to organize. One striking image displayed in the exhibit is his rendition of a black woman holding a spear with the words “Afro American solidarity with the oppressed people of the world” written across the brightly colored picture. Douglass’ style is evident in all his photos as he uses a distinct blend of bright colors to create an image that seeks to persuade readers to stand up to racial injustice.

The other branch of civil rights is, unsurprisingly, the work of Dr. Martin Luther King. King’s strategy, however, started with a women named Mamie Till. After her son, Emmett, was brutally lynched in Mississippi, Till insisted that his casket remain open during the funeral so that the world would see what hatred was inflicted on her son.

“We had averted our eyes for far too long, turning away from the ugly reality facing us as a nation,” Till said. “Let the world see what I’ve seen.”

Graphic images of lynching victims, and the brutality and injustice they faced, are on display here. All black and white, they show America’s history of racial violence.

King used a similar tactic in his civil rights campaign. For the first time, many white people saw the brutality that black Americans endured based on their skin color. Large prints of famous civil rights images cover the walls, photos of marchers in Selma and of protesters being blasted by fire hoses. The images are graphic, but they accomplish what King, and Mamie Till before him, sought to accomplish: an uncompromising look at the reality of racial division.

The room is set up in a loop, and near the door stands a cork board with a question printed on a plaque: What do you think the world needs to see? Answers are written on different colored sticky notes that range from “Peace” to “Equity for All” to “More Black Women in Power” as the female symbol with a clenched fist rises through it.

For All the World to See does what art is supposed to do: it shows instead of tells the history of America’s racial divisions, challenges and violence.