News / Arts & Entertainment

America's Civil Rights Legends Honored at National Museum

New exhibit features some of the men and women who changed the course of U.S. history

In this wooden sculpture by Marshall D. Rumbaugh, Rosa Parks is held by two policemen.  Parks was arrested after refusing to give up her seat to a white male bus rider in Montgomery, Alabama.
In this wooden sculpture by Marshall D. Rumbaugh, Rosa Parks is held by two policemen. Parks was arrested after refusing to give up her seat to a white male bus rider in Montgomery, Alabama.

Multimedia

On August 28, 1963, a quarter-million Americans marched in the streets of Washington demanding racial equality and freedom. At the time, it was the largest civil rights demonstration in U.S. history.

It was during this march when civil rights champion Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech advocating racial harmony.

The March for Jobs and Freedom, as it was called, was organized by civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph, who spent a lifetime fighting for the economic empowerment of African-Americans.

Portrait of Asa Philip Randolph by Ernest Hamlin Baker (National Portrait Gallery-Smithsonian Institution)
Portrait of Asa Philip Randolph by Ernest Hamlin Baker (National Portrait Gallery-Smithsonian Institution)

Major figures in civil rights history

Randolph and King are among dozens of civil rights leaders showcased in a new exhibit at The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

The exhibit features over 40 paintings, photographs, sculptures and other art forms of key figures from the 19th and 20th century who fought to empower African-Americans, women, Native Americans, farm workers, gays, lesbians and the disabled.

There are photographs of slavery abolitionist Frederick Douglass and educator Booker T. Washington, a former slave who went on to become one of the most important African-American leaders of his time.

Sociologist and historian W.E.B. Du Bois, who is portrayed in a pastel portrait, is well known for his ground-breaking book, "The Souls of Black Folk," which described what it was like to be African-American at the turn of the 20th century.

The book is still read by students, black and white, across America. 

W.E.B. Du Bois, pastel on paper, by Winold Reiss (National Portrait Gallery- Smithsonian Institution)
W.E.B. Du Bois, pastel on paper, by Winold Reiss (National Portrait Gallery- Smithsonian Institution)

Opposing approaches to empowerment

Sidney Hart, a senior historian at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, says unlike Booker T. Washington who advocated accommodation and gradualism, Du Bois called for immediate civil and political rights for African-Americans.  

Hart says these two leaders represented opposite branches of the African-American struggle for civil rights.

"Two of the most important characters: Du Bois, the Harvard-educated cosmopolitan, cerebral thinker; Washington, born a slave, and working himself up," he says.

Hart says the museum wanted both men featured in the exhibit, "to represent the two opposite poles of civil rights."

In 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested when she refused to give her seat to a white male bus rider in Montgomery, Alabama. This sparked a boycott of the city's bus system.

The following year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that laws requiring segregation on buses were unconstitutional.

Parks is featured in the exhibit in a large, wooden sculpture where she is seen being held by two policemen. Parks is painted in bright primary colors, and is proportionately larger than the other two figures, who've been painted in more subdued colors.

Farm workers unite

The exhibit also features César Chávez, a Mexican-American farm worker who led a series of protests in the 1960s against the unfair treatment of migrant workers. He and fellow activist Dolores Huerta co-founded the United Farm Workers (UFW) which launched a nationwide boycott of California grapes to improve working conditions for grape pickers. 

'The Return of Aztlan,' by Alfredo Arreguin, features activists César Chávez (lower left), Dolores Huerta (right) and Emiliano Zapata (center) © Alfredo M. Arreguin
'The Return of Aztlan,' by Alfredo Arreguin, features activists César Chávez (lower left), Dolores Huerta (right) and Emiliano Zapata (center) © Alfredo M. Arreguin

According to Ann Shumard, curator of photographs at The National Portrait Gallery, their movement expanded well beyond the West Coast to become a nationwide organization supporting labor opportunities and rights for migrant and agricultural workers.  

Chavez and Delores Huerta are commemorated in a painting called "The Return to Aztlan," which also depicts images of Emiliano Zapata, leader of the Mexican revolution, and Jose Maria Morelos and Miguel Hidalgo, both leaders in the war for Mexican independence.

Native Americans are "still here"

Leonard Crow Dog fought for greater rights for Native Americans and is regarded by many as the spiritual leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM), an organization of Native American activists that was founded in 1968.

(National Portrait Gallery-Smithsonian Institution)
(National Portrait Gallery-Smithsonian Institution)

Crow Dog is represented in the exhibit through a poster bearing his image.

According to Frank Goodyear, associate curator of photographs at The National Portrait Gallery, the poster was part of the publicity materials that the American Indian movement generated.

There is a slogan under Crow Dog's portrait that reads, "We  are still here," which Goodyear explains was a symbolic reminder to Americans that Native Americans had not vanished; that these tribal communities were still present, but simply lacked visibility in the larger American public.

According to Goodyear, Crow Dog not only advocated demonstrations to promote Native American rights, but also encouraged Native Americans to "re-engage with their traditions."

"He suggested the importance of Native Americans looking back to their heritage, to their traditions and finding strength in that history," he says.

Goodyear says it was largely because of the efforts of the American Indian Movement that Congress passed the "Indian Self-determination and Education" act in 1975.

"A landmark piece of civil rights legislation that reasserts tribal sovereignty, and establishes the tribal college system which remains today a really important element in Native American communities," he says.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (left) and Susan B. Anthony (right), Albumen silver print, by Napoleon Sarony
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (left) and Susan B. Anthony (right), Albumen silver print, by Napoleon Sarony

Women get the vote

In 1920, after a long and difficult struggle, American women finally gained the right to vote.

The seeds of that historic victory were sewn by women's rights activists Lucretia Coffin Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

They are represented in the exhibit through historic photographs.

There is also a large oil painting of Carrie Chapman Catt, another leading figure in the women's rights movement. In 1900, she replaced Anthony as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

Carrie Chapman Catt, oil on canvas, by Mary Eliot Foote (National Portrait Gallery-Smithsonian Institution)
Carrie Chapman Catt, oil on canvas, by Mary Eliot Foote (National Portrait Gallery-Smithsonian Institution)

It was Catt who led the organization during its successful passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which guaranteed all American women the right to vote.

The heroic individuals showcased in this exhibit fought hard to achieve justice and equality for their fellow Americans.

They are remembered not only for the battles they waged but for the groundwork they laid for struggles that remain to be won.

You May Like

India PM Modi's Party Distances Itself From Religious Conversions

BJP under fire for being slow to rein in hardline affiliate groups allegedly trying to promote Hindu-dominant agenda by luring Muslims and Christians to convert More

Anti-Whaling Group Found in Contempt of Court

Radical environmentalists who threw acid and smoke bombs at Japanese whalers in the waters off Antarctica continue their campaign to disrupt Japan's annual whale hunt More

UN's Ban Urges End to Discrimination Against Ebola Workers

Ban was speaking in Guinea on the second day of a whistle-stop tour aimed at thanking healthcare workers of the countries at the heart of the epidemic More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Decision on Cuba Underscores Divisions Among Miami Cubansi
X
Sharon Behn
December 19, 2014 9:34 PM
For decades, older, more conservative Cubans have been gathering at Café Versailles on the corner of Calle Ocho to eat Cuban food and talk politics. After hearing of President Barack Obama’s decision, a number of them gathered in front of the café with posters to protest. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on the situation.
Video

Video US Decision on Cuba Underscores Divisions Among Miami Cubans

For decades, older, more conservative Cubans have been gathering at Café Versailles on the corner of Calle Ocho to eat Cuban food and talk politics. After hearing of President Barack Obama’s decision, a number of them gathered in front of the café with posters to protest. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on the situation.
Video

Video Three Cities Bid for Future Obama Presidential Library

President Barack Obama still has two years left in his term in office, but the effort to establish his post-presidential library is already underway. The bid for the Obama Presidential Library is down to four locations in three states -- New York, Hawaii, and Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, each of them played an important part in the president’s life before he reached the White House.
Video

Video Cuba Deal is Major Victory for Pope’s Diplomatic Initiatives

Pope Francis played a key role in brokering the US-Cuba deal that was made public earlier this week. It is the most stunning success so far in a series of peacemaking efforts by the pontiff. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Video

Video Fears of More Political Gridlock in 2015

2014 proved to be a difficult year politically for President Barack Obama and a very good year for the U.S. Republican Party. Republican gains in the November midterm elections gave them control of the Senate and House of Representatives for the next two years -- setting the stage for more confrontation and gridlock in the final two years of the Obama presidency. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone has a preview from Washington.
Video

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video VOA Reporter Tours Devastated Peshawar School

Islamist militants wearing military uniforms and strapped with explosives attacked a military run school Tuesday in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. At least 141 people were killed in the horrific attack, most of them young students. VOA reporter Ayaz Gul visited the devastated school and attended the funeral of the principal who courageously tried to save her students from the deadly attack.
Video

Video Nigerians Fleeing Boko Haram Languish in Camp Near Capital

In its five-year effort to impose Islamic law in northeastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram extremist group has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Some of those who ran for their lives now live in squalor on the edges of the capital, Abuja. Chris Stein reports for VOA.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.

All About America

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Soul Lounge

"Soul Lounge" host Shawna Renee catches up with soul singer and songwriter Russell Taylor to hear what he’s been up to since winning the VH1 "You Oughta Know" title in 2013. She also convinces him to share a few songs from his album "War of Hearts."