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

Ebola Death Toll Nears 5,000 as Virus Advances

West Africa bears heaviest burden; Mali toddler’s death raises new fears More

Jordan’s Battle With Islamic State Militants Carries Domestic Risks

Despite Western concerns that IS militants are preparing a Jordanian offensive, analysts call the kingdom's solid intel a strong deterrent More

Asian-Americans Assume Office in Record Numbers

Steadily deepening engagement in local politics pays off for politicians like Chinese-American Judy Chu 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.
Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
October 25, 2014 4:21 PM
Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukraine

Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Smugglers Offer Cheap Passage From Turkey to Syria

Smugglers in Turkey offer a relatively cheap passage across the border into Syria. Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters who want to join Islamic State militants fighting for control of the Syrian border city of Kobani. But porous borders and border guards who can be bribed make illegal border crossings quite easy. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Comanche Chief Quanah Parker’s Century-Old House Falling Apart

One of the most fascinating people in U.S. history was Quanah Parker, the last chief of the American Indian tribe, the Comanche. He was the son of a Comanche warrior and a white woman who had been captured by the Indians. Parker was a fierce warrior until 1875 when he led his people to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and took on a new, peaceful life. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Cache, Oklahoma, Quanah’s image remains strong among his people, but part of his heritage is in danger of disappearing.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.

All About America

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Border Crossings

Joe Taylor sits down with "Border Crossings" host Larry London to talk about his distinction as New York’s “Subway Idol,” and how he beat out thousands for that title. Joe performs several songs from his new CD, “Anything’s Possible.”