Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights

Visual images are crucial to the struggle for justice.  This was the central theme in the exhibit For All the World To See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights at the International Center of Photography, which I saw the weekend it closed here in New York City.  The exhibit, guest curated by Maurice Berger, included still photographs, magazine covers, advertisements, newsreels, films, and artifacts with images (such as church fans with Dr. King’s picture).

(Image by Ernest Withers from ICP)

Much of the civil rights struggle for public opinion was fought through the creation of images that captured the struggle in graphic terms.  Montgomery, Alabama-based photographer, Charles Moore, famously said, “I fight with my camera.” His photos of Dr. and Mrs. King being arrested in Montgomery, and the release of the photos over the AP wire helped galvanize support for the nascent civil rights movement.  His photo of dogs and fire hoses turned on civil rights demonstrators, many of them children, ran on the front pages of many newspapers worldwide.   For his part, Dr. King was not simply a passive photographic subject, but was acutely aware of how images of him and the movement were used in the cause of civil rights.  To read more about this, I strongly recommend Sasha Torres’ Black, White and in Color: Television and Black Civil Rights (Princeton UP, 2003)

I was especially delighted to see some early versions of sociologist W.E.B. DuBois’ magazine, Crisis, the publication of the NAACP, which averaged monthly circulation of 30,000 in 1915.   DuBois was also committed to the use of visual culture as a way to promote civil rights for African Americans at the dawn of the 20th century.  For example, at the 1900 Paris Exhibition, DuBois organized “The American Negro Exhibit” in which he displayed photographs of middle-class blacks dressed in their finest clothes, which was an explicit attempt on his part to represent African American achievement for an international audience.  DuBois was also the target of criticism for the particular way he deployed visual culture on the cover of the Crisis, often using light-skinned black women to draw readers (not unlike the recent controversy over the Elle cover that Joe mentioned). For an excellent analysis of DuBois’ approach to visual culture, see Shawn Michelle Smith’s Photography on the Color Line: W.E.B. DuBois, Race and Visual Culture (Duke UP, 2004).

Unfortunately, there was little of this in the exhibit. While DuBois was an ardent supporter of women’s rights (he said  “every argument for Negro suffrage is an argument for women’s suffrage”), there was little mention of the struggle for gender equality in the exhibit.   Even in the curation for the photo above, there was little discussion of the gendered quality of this protest.  In many ways, I found this exhibit much less compelling than the one I saw last summer at PS1 featuring the work of Hank Willis Thomas about the commodification of black bodies.

The other unavoidable shortcoming of the exhibit was that it didn’t deal with the controversy surrounding Ernest Withers, the creator of the image featured above.  Withers was an important photographer in the struggle for civil rights (he took the photo of lynching victim Emmett Till in his open casket.)  And, it’s just been revealed, Withers also worked as an FBI informant.   So while his photographs worked to advance the cause of civil rights and social justice, he simultaneously helped the FBI gain a front-row seat to the civil rights and anti-war movements in Memphis.  Withers deeply mixed legacy troubles our understanding the civil rights photographer who “fights with his camera.”

Overall, I’m glad I caught this exhibit, perhaps most especially for the short news clip of Malcolm X being interviewed.  I’m mostly glad because it reminded me of some of the excellent scholarship, such as Torres’ and Smith’s work, on race, civil rights and visual culture.


  1. parkbench

    Darby English’s “How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness” has an amazing account of early debates among intellectuals like DuBois on the purpose and ethics of representation in art of black folks in the first chapter–forgive me, I haven’t read it in over a year, but I do remember how subtle, careful, and eye-opening it was.


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