If you think you know the history of the civil rights movement in the United States, “For All The World To See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights,” a new exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture gallery in the American History Museum, encourages you to take another look.
“The vast majority, if not virtually all exhibitions on the civil rights movement dealing with visual materials almost exclusively are about the way photographs documented the movement—that’s pretty much what civil rights exhibitions have been for the past 25 years,” says curator Maurice Berger. “This exhibition asks a far different question.”
And that question, Berger says, is how visual culture—television, film, magazines, newspapers, toys, pamphlets, posters—was used, both by leaders of the movement and activists, as well as by everyday black Americans, to change prevailing ideas about race in the United States.
Divided into five sections, the exhibition takes visitors from the stereotypical images of blacks into which the civil rights movement was born, to those created to foster a sense of black pride and accomplishment. The third section, “Let The World See What I’ve Seen” : Evidence and Persuasion, examines how powerful depictions of the struggle helped change public perception, buoyed by materials related to the Emmett Till case. The exhibit continues through the exploration of how entertainment television dealt with black performers and the subject of race and concludes with a showcase of visual artifacts of daily life, from family snapshots to advertising campaigns and including campaign materials from the Black Panther Party.
“It’s one of the rare instances where an exhibition is able to make the claim that a political movement took advantage in an extraordinary way of the new technologies of seeing and representing the world,” Berger says.
Some of the highlights of this multimedia exhibition include: historic footage of Jackie Robinson’s first game in the major leagues, a look at the history of black magazines, clips from groundbreaking T.V. documentaries and shows, a touch screen story of the Emmett Till case and photographs documenting the movement taken by Gordon Parks, Roy DeCarava and Carl Van Vechten, among others.
In addition to the exhibition, there is also an illustrated companion book and a comprehensive online version of the exhibition. Berger, who began his research six years ago, calls the process a “very sustained six-year period of intensive research, archive building, exhibition organizing and writing of the book,” the culmination of which debuted in May of last year with the first stop on the six-venue national tour. Co-organized by the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, this is the exhibit’s third stop.
“There have been claims that pictures matter, that images matter, that they can make a difference,” Berger says. “‘For All The World To See’ is living proof in so many ways that pictures—even things as ordinary as a snapshot— can truly change the way people understand issues and ideas in the United States and in the world.”
See “For All The World To See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights” at the National Museum of African American History and Culture gallery in the National Museum of American History through November 2011.