Sunday, September 1, 2013

Destination Freedom...The Artists Capturing the Civil Rights Movement

As soon as the landmark events and changes of the Civil Rights Movement began, there were artists—ranging from singers, authors, painters, playwrights, dancers, and more—who tried to capture the stories and explain their impact.

We can read it within the works of poet Langston Hughes, who depicted the activists, angst, letdowns and promise of the movement. A poet who burst to the national scene during the 1920’s-1930’s Harlem Renaissance, Hughes had long dealt with the themes of being black in America as well as freedom and equality in his writings.

His poem “Birmingham Sunday” (you can read here), looked at the events of the 16th Street Baptist church bombing,
 while the poem “Go Slow” responds to those who criticized the movement as being too confrontational—the same criticism that inspired Dr. Martin Luther King to write his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In other works like “Freedom [3],” “Bombings in Dixie,” and “Death in Yorkville” about the 1964 death of James Powell, Hughes explored the many questions and contradictions of American democracy that the movement exposed.
Another author dealing with the events in 1963 in his works was Christopher Paul Curtis. His 1995 novel “The Watsons Go to Birmingham,” won a Newbery Honor and the Coretta Scott King Award for children’s literature in its depiction of a family that lives through the 16th Street bombing and has to find ways to deal with its emotional aftermath. The book has been turned to a television movie which will air on Sept. 20, 2013. Here is more information about the movie adaptation.
Lukova's "I Have a Dream"
Contemporary visual artist Luba Lukova, whose work is featured in the Network of Mutuality: 50 Years Post Birmingham, now on exhibit at Levine Museum, looks at 1963 in a different medium. Using graphics, her work “I Have a Dream” juxtaposes images of Dr. King with the violent attack dogs Birmingham police used in 1963. Lukova has been heralded for her provocative work. The exhibit Network of Mutuality, has been called not only timely but an exhibit that raises questions, through art, for a continuing dialogue about the state of race relations and the quest for equality, freedom and just today.
Public art at Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama
Sculptor James Drake also responded to events in Birmingham in 1963 through art. Drake crafted three sculptural pieces that line Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park, the site of some of the most shocking events in the Children’s March. Drake’s sculptures, which depict the shocking scenes of police-led terror on protesters (including police dog attacks and the use of fire-hoses on children), evokes a real sense of what it would have been like to participate in the protests but also reveals how art can translate history in a powerful way.
How do you remember learning about the events of 1963?

What are some of your favorite artistic pieces that deal with the Civil Rights Movement?

If you were an artist, how would you choose to represent the civil rights events of then or now in art?
Share your answers with us on Twitter @LevineMuseum. Follow along using the hashtag #DestinationFreedom.
Or visit us at to see how social media connects artists, museums and visitors to the stories of the past.

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