The civil rights movement is most often recalled through speeches, songs and photos – but what about its art? On the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, Nick Bryant looks back.

The civil rights era lives in America’s moral memory largely through oratory, song and news footage. Especially reverberant, of course, are the speeches of the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr – his “I have a dream” speech delivered in August, 1963, or the oration he gave in Memphis, Tennessee, in which he seemed to foresee his own assassination the following day. To remember those speeches is also to recall the music that often accompanied them: the great anthems of the movement, like We Shall Overcome, or the Negro spirituals belted out by Mahalia Jackson, to cries of  'Amen', 'Hallelujah' and ‘You tell them sister!’

As for images of the struggle for black equality, most Americans would probably summon up the photographs and news footage that caught snapshots of the great social revolution of the post-war age. The jolting images from Birmingham, Alabama, the ‘Johannesburg of America’, where in the spring of 1963 police dogs tore at the clothing and flesh of young protesters; or the equally stomach-churning film from Selma in 1965, where Alabama state troopers beat a column of activists with their Billy clubs, with the ferocity of butchers hacking at meat.

Long neglected, however, has been the art of the freedom struggle. This is partly because those photographs of the protest movement are so dramatic and visually arresting. Why look beyond them? It is also because the civil rights era ran in parallel with two post-war artistic movements, Abstract Expressionism and Pop art, that tended not to be overtly political. Whereas social realism had been the dominant art form in the 1930s, chronicling the Great Depression and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, Pop art centred on commercialism and commodity, while Abstract Expressionism was less literal and largely apolitical. The anti-communist McCarthyism of the 1950s, a dark phase of cultural censorship, had cowed many artists, and led them to vacate the political arena.

Still, there is a significant body of American art that was inspired by the struggle for black equality. A collection of this art has been brought together at the Brooklyn Museum of Art to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a sweeping piece of legislation that sounded the death knell for a system of racial apartheid in the American South that went by the deceptively unthreatening name of Jim Crow. Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties features 103 pieces from 66 artists, and fills something of a cultural blind-spot.

The mainstream conversation about art and the civil rights movement often begins and ends with the work of Norman Rockwell, and focuses on his iconic 1964 illustration, The Problem We All Live With. The painting, which Barack Obama hung for a while at the White House, depicts a six-year-old schoolgirl, Ruby Bridges, protected by US federal marshals, as she became the first African-American pupil at a previously all-white school in New Orleans in 1960. On the wall behind Ruby Bridges, who is dressed in a pristine white dress, is a splattered tomato, thrown by the mob of angry parents who tried to block her entry, and the racial slur ‘NIGGER’. Regarded as Rockwell’s most famous work, more so even than Rosie the Riveter, it so well known that it has overshadowed other pieces from this period.

With The Problem We All Live With unavailable to the curators, the new exhibition showcases one of Rockwell’s lesser-known works, New Kids in the Neighbourhood. It depicts the integration of a white middle-class neighbourhood, a form of racial advancement that even many Americans who sympathised with the civil rights movement found unnerving. With a removal van as backdrop, three white children stare mystifyingly at the two new black arrivals, their baseball mitts providing the only sign of a shared heritage and the hope of a genuine connection.

For an artist known for his folksiness and Americana, the struggle for black equality brought a hitherto unseen edginess to Rockwell’s work. In 1963, the illustrator even left The Saturday Evening Post, one of the big news magazines of the day, because it frowned upon some of his socially progressive work.

The obstacles in the way of integration are explored in The Door (Admissions Office) by the African-American artist David Hammons. It depicts the entrance of a school admissions office, with the impression of the artist’s body pressing helplessly against it. The Supreme Court’s momentous Brown v Board of Education decision in 1954 had ordered the desegregation of whites-only southern schools, but only at “all deliberate speed.” That ambiguous wording enabled segregationists to delay and thwart that process late into the 1960s.

Civil rights icons

Unquestionably, some of the most enduring images come from photographs of the time. A shot of Martin Luther King marching in Montgomery alongside Rosa Parks, the seamstress whose determination to remain seated in the whites only section of a segregated bus sparked the protest that brought MLK to national attention. Then there is a portrait of Governor George Wallace of Alabama, who came to personify Jim Crow, and an image of Bob Dylan casually strumming his guitar outside the office of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) in Greenwood, Mississippi.

The iconic black and white snapshots from Birmingham, Alabama, shot by Charles Moore, a press photographer whose work probably did more than any other to build white support for the civil rights movement, are on prominent display. But so, too, are a number of works inspired by them. Birmingham, 1964, by Jack Whitten, is a three-dimensional of twisted aluminium foil, black paint and sheer stocking mesh, which looks like a bullet hole or gaping wound. At its heart is a photograph of the clashes between police and protesters in Birmingham.

Moore’s photography from those springtime street demonstrations also provides the inspiration for Andy Warhol’s Birmingham Race Riot. Using a black ink silkscreen print, he reproduces a section of the famed snarling dog shot. But the work seems to be too easy and derivative. Evidently, Warhol intended this 1964 painting to depict the indifference of the American people to the civil rights movement, but that itself is historically inaccurate. The public reacted to the events in Birmingham not with indifference, but with shocked indignance. They brought the brute force of southern racism into sharp focus, and helped build support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Pop art was a movement that did not always do justice to the protest movement. It was based on parody and whimsy, with a focus on banal commercial objects, but the civil rights movement did not easily lend itself to this kind of quirkiness or frivolity. Still, Faith Ringgold’s Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger is a striking work, in which the stripes of Old Glory appear as prison bars. So, too, is The Confederacy: Alabama by Robert Indiana. The work is part of a series of paintings – first exhibited in 1966, alongside the debut showing of Indiana’s famous LOVE painting, with its distinctive slanted ‘O’– that depict the states of the Old Confederacy. At first glance they like gaudy advertisements, but each carry the dark admonition: “Just as in the anatomy of man every nation must have its hind part.”

‘Black is beautiful’

Perhaps the most eye-catching work is Lawdy Mama by Barkley L Hendricks, a portrait of a staggeringly beautiful woman with a halo-like Afro haircut, which is set against the kind of gold-leaf backdrop normally associated with Greek and Russian Orthodox religious icons. Fittingly, it is the centrepiece of a section of the exhibition celebrating Black is Beautiful, the cultural movement that challenged white concepts of beauty and the notion that dark skin, afro hair and African features were inherently unattractive.

Like the snarling dogs from Birmingham, the conical hoods of the Ku Klux Klan are a recurring motif, especially in the works Philip Guston. In City Limits by the painter, three Klansmen are crammed into a car, looking like thuggish clowns as they cruise through an empty cityscape. 

Marking such an important anniversary, this is an especially timely exhibition that captures the mood, spirit and injustice of the tumultuous decades of the civil rights era: the ugliness and brutality of racism, the outrage it provoked, and the courage and dignified rage of the protesters who fought and sometimes died to enjoy the full menu of basic rights. It goes a long way towards filling a cultural lacuna, and grants recognition to American artists who themselves sought to hammer at the wall of prejudices, but who did so with their paintbrushes.

Nick Bryant is BBC News’ UN correspondent and is the author of The Bystander: John F Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality.

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