Sanitation Workers Assemble in Front of Clayborn Temple for a Solidarity March, Memphis, Tennessee,
March 28, 1968 by Ernest C. Withers
“For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights,” curated by Maurice Berger, reveals the divided nature of African-American identity that has been distorted by the mass media. Reality and images were two different phenomena rather than one and the same. Stars from sports and Hollywood like Jackie Robinson and Paul Robeson captured how Americans wished to see blacks in America. However it did not counter-balance or even reflect the racism that was practiced across the country such as lynchings, segregation and random assassinations, as see in the case of young Emmett Till.
Missing: Call FBI, 29 June 1964
This exhibition opens with movie footage of Paul Robeson and stills from The Beulah Show. However on the wall opposite, a group of segregation signs appear, openly revealing the instructions for blacks and whites to stand separate. This odd juxtaposition of opposites plays out in another room that features two posters of Caucasian school children, framed with texts that read: “This is America…Keep it Free!” and “Don’t Let that Shadow Touch Them. Buy War Bonds.” Images have functioned as mirrors of identity. When set within the context of mass media, identity turns into a layer of perception that encapsulates specific narratives and prejudice.
Sepia, November 1959
Collection of Civil Rights Archive/CADVC-UMBC, Baltimore, Maryland
In this exhibition, popular culture is exposed as the root of racism. The house-maid and butler, for instance, were objectified in the Aunt Jemima and Uncle Mose Salt and Pepper Shakers made around 1950. All of these images and ephemera culminate in photographs of black men assembling in Memphis, Tenessee for a civil rights march, holding signs that read, “I AM A MAN.” This show confirms that there have been no fictional heroes in the mass media who represent the real-life struggles of African-Americans except for the citizens themselves.