Using images to change history

Crime, Law and JusticeGordon ParksPaul RobesonPsy (entertainer)Baltimore CountyLower East Side

The civil rights movement was full of dynamic and evocative images. Today, even many of us born after its iconic moments were captured on film can describe Martin Luther King Jr.'s outstretched arm pointing a sea of people toward a future decades beyond the short span of his life, or German shepherds in Birmingham ripping into black skin, as if we had watched these events live. But 50 years after the March on Washington, one local institution is helping audiences revisit this period in American history and examine details that were largely overlooked.

"For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights" is the work of the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and curator Maurice Berger.

"For so many decades," says Mr. Berger, a cultural historian and research professor at UMBC, "The eye was on the protest. The eye was on the speech." But after a career spent examining a broad range of visual media, he says, "I started to understand that it wasn't so much how images documented the movement. It was the almost uncannily brilliant ability of both leaders in the movement and also the rank and file folks ... figuring out how images could actually serve as agents of change" that was key.

Mr. Berger is uniquely qualified to lead people through this type of historical reexamination. He is critical of labels but identifies himself, among many other things, as Jewish and gay and counts the things he saw growing up among African-American children in a housing project on Manhattan's Lower East Side as some of his most formative experiences. In his 1999 book "White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness," he uses the cumulative effect of vignettes, including stories from his childhood and interviews with other people, to expose the reader in private to the biases most of us cannot own up to in public. "For All the World to See" is presented with the same patience and precision. Here, too, the results are devastating.

Viewers travel four decades, from stereotyped representations of African-Americans in the 1930s to the Black Arts Movement of the 1970s. One of the first sounds you hear is Paul Robeson's rolling baritone singing "Ol' Man River" in a 1936 adaptation of "Show Boat." He is supposed to be a simple handyman, but Robeson's immense talents seem too big for the role and the screen. The incongruity is soon underscored by a photo of the actor in full military regalia, dressed as Othello in the longest-running performance of a Shakespeare play on Broadway.

Down the hall, we see that by March 1963, Time magazine has put Cassius Clay on its cover. Having a black face prominently displayed on a major American news publication was a powerful statement. But this was a highly selective representation of the boxer, who was drawn (not photographed) to look like an angel for a mainstream audience. One year later, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali and joined the Nation of Islam.

Opposite the Time cover, in a section on the black press, pioneering photographer Gordon Parks makes a bolder and intentionally ironic statement by titling a portrait of the Black Panther member Eldridge Cleaver and his wife Kathleen simply "The Cleavers," calling to mind one of America's favorite white TV families. African-Americans were now being portrayed by other African-Americans on their own terms.

"For All the World to See" is an immersive experience. Sounds from video clips pull you along, subtly influencing where among the strategically positioned books, buttons, posters and other artifacts you are compelled to stop and think. I found myself lingering near a picture of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago whose brutal murder in Mississippi made news across the country. Overhead, a quote from Mamie Till Bradley explaining why she gave her son an open-casket funeral stretched across a gray wall: "[W]e had averted our eyes for far too long, turning away from the ugly reality facing us as a nation. Let the world see what I've seen."

This was hard to take in, but when I did, I was ready. And that was the point. "Every time I do a show," says Mr. Berger, "I extend my hand to each and every [viewer] and say, I'll take your hand and help you walk through this."

"For all the World to See" runs at UMBC through March 10.

Lionel Foster is a freelance writer from Baltimore. His column appears Fridays. Email: lionel@lionelfoster.com. Twitter: @LionelBMD.

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