“Vitality and Courage”: The Visual Fight For Civil Rights

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed…” A more famous speech was never heard in the United States. It is a speech that encompasses the entirety of the Civil Rights Movement, a speech written to change the world. And change the world it did. But the written word was not the only medium by which the battle for civil rights was fought. There was an entire visual culture associated with the Civil Rights movement.

            When I was thinking about what I wanted to present on for the topic of civil rights I knew I wanted to do something from the newly inaugurated National Museum of African American History and Culture because I wanted to see how they cultivate an online presence in the absence of a tangible structure. What I found was a visually compelling story about the visual world surrounding civil rights. The online exhibit For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights is a companion piece to a traveling exhibit by the same name.

            Gordon Parks initiated the idea “that photographs could be forceful agents of social change.” [1] For Parks, using his camera to capture the world was his way of saying that visuals were “powerful enough to alter the course of history.” [2] Visual imagery is compelling. It was used to combat racist imagery of African Americans, to promote positive imagery, and as evidence to the horror that befell African Americans in a country where they were denied their rights. As I learned, African Americans were using visual imagery to combat racism before the Civil Rights Movement.

            The exhibit has examples of Crisis, the magazine put out by W.E.B DuBois for the NAACP. The magazine had a monthly circulation of over 30,000 people in 1915 [3]. Even before that, DuBois organized a display for the Paris Exhibition in 1900 called The American Negro Exhibit using photographs of African Americans dressed in their finest as a way to show “African American achievement to an international audience [4].”

Image   Image


            The exhibit starts out chronicling the stereotypical image of the subservient African American in mainstream American visual culture in the 1930s where it then transitions into the imagery used by African Americans at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement. Posters, advertisements, television shows, memorabilia, and so much more was used as a tool to empower African Americans and inspire them to activism. It was also used to remind Americans that racism led to deadly outcomes.

            Whatever the reason for visual imagery, it proved to be a vital tool in the Civil Rights Movement just by showing the country what it meant to be black, images of the racist realities they faced right next to the images of community and courage.

[1] For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights


[2] Ibid.

[3] Racism Review: http://www.racismreview.com/blog/2010/09/20/visual-culture-and-the-struggle-for-civil-rights/

[4] Ibid.

One thought on ““Vitality and Courage”: The Visual Fight For Civil Rights

  1. I will be really interested to see whether the museum will transfer their online exhibits into their physcial space once it opens, or leave them as online ideas and come up wtih something new for their builidng.

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