“The Chrysler is proud to be steward of a large and important collection of Civil Rights-era photographs,” says Museum Director Erik Neil. “As our nation marks the 50th anniversary of this turning point in American history, we are using art to examine an often overlooked side of this story.”
While men like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, and James Baldwin gave public speeches and negotiated with police and politicians, women worked behind the scenes with equal courage and dedication. Coretta Scott King praised them in a 1966 interview, telling New Lady magazine, “Not enough attention has been focused on the roles played by women in the struggle… women have been the backbone of the whole Civil Rights movement.” These included educators, organizers, writers, singers, and in a few cases, photographers, each putting her personal skills to work for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and other advocacy groups.
Mrs. King appears in the Chrysler’s exhibition in a photograph by Benedict Fernandez, sharing dinner with her husband and children, and there are also images of Fannie Lou Hamer, the Little Rock Nine, and a variety of leaders. In other cases, the identities of the protestors are unknown, such as the young woman drenched and stumbling at the center of Charles Moore’s image Demonstrators Attacked with Water Cannons, Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Alabama, May 3, 1963.
“This isn’t a who’s who or a timeline of the Civil Rights movement,” explains Brock Curator of American Art Alex Mann, curator of the exhibition. “It’s a collection of magnificent photographs telling an inspiring story through different strategies. Some are portraits, carefully constructed, while others are street photographs, throwing us into the action, where we almost feel the heat and hear the protest songs.”
The exhibition’s mix of photojournalism with deliberately artistic and conceptual works reflects the breadth of the photography collection at the Chrysler Museum, which has been a pioneer in this field since the 1970s. Drawing on the Museum’s many strengths, the show also includes works commissioned by the federal government’s New Deal poverty relief programs in the 1930s, illustrating the ways in which Civil Rights photographers found inspiration in the documentary projects of earlier generations. In addition, visitors will see vintage issues of LIFE magazine, showing the context through which many of these images reached Middle America.
“Some of these pictures essentially went viral,” says Mann. “This was one of the first times when photos changed history almost overnight. They shocked the world and changed hearts. Politicians couldn’t ignore them.”
Beyond its history lessons, the exhibition invites audiences to reflect on these photographs in light of contemporary events. Minority communities continue to demand better legal protections, and art remains an important tool in campaigns against racism and bigotry. One notable change in the past half century is the growing presence of women in politics and leadership. Some of the student activists pictured in this exhibition later became prominent writers, educators, and filmmakers, preparing the next generation to become CEOs, senators, and presidential candidates.
“We continue to use photographs to record and process current events,” says Mann, “and today we are all photojournalists, armed with digital cameras. The artists in this show are our ancestors in this practice, breaking down walls and building communities, and no cell phone shot will be more profound than some of the pictures displayed here.”
Women and the Civil Rights Movement is on view in the Chrysler’s Frank Photography Galleries June 14–October 30, 2016. Admission is free.