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The Power Of Pictures In The Struggle For Civil Rights

There have been hundreds of exhibits about the civil rights movement in the 1950s and '60s. But the current show at the International Center for Photography in New York City is different. For one, For All the World to See focuses on images.

But it also illuminates a struggle that began well before the '50s. According to Maurice Berger, the show's curator, the way blacks were portrayed in media was a crucial part of the civil rights struggle. Those images pushed the struggle, he says, and the struggle pushed the images.

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    The cover image of this book by Lorraine Hansberry, The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality, 1964, was shot by photographer Danny Lyon.
    Collection of Civil Rights Archive/CADVC-UMBC, Balitmore/Courtesy of the International Center for Photography
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    Sanitation Workers Assembling for a Solidarity March, Memphis, was taken by photographer Ernest Withers, March 28, 1968
    Collection of National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C./Courtesy of the International Center for Photography
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    "Baby Nancy" Doll, 1968, Shindana Toy Co., Division of Operation Bootstrap, Watts, Calif.
    Collection of Civil Rights Archive/CADVC-UMBC, Baltimore, Md./Courtesy of the International Center for Photography
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    The cover of Jim Crow in Uniform by Claudia Jones, 1940
    Collection of Civil Rights Archive/CADVC-UMBC, Balitmore/Courtesy of the International Center for Photography
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    Civil rights demonstration, Birmingham, Ala., May 3, 1963, unidentified photographer
    International Center of Photography/Courtesy of the International Center for Photography
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    Sepia, November 1959
    Collection of Civil Rights Archive/CADVC-UMBC, Balitmore/Courtesy of the International Center for Photography
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    Our World, August 1954
    Collection of Civil Rights Archive/CADVC-UMBC, Balitmore/Courtesy of the International Center for Photography
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    Negro Baseball Pictorial Yearbook, 1945
    Civil Rights Archive/CADVC-UMBC, Baltimore/Courtesy of the International Center for Photography
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    Fan, Evans Memorial Chapel, Saginaw, Mich., circa 1968
    Collection of Civil Rights Archive/CADVC-UMBC, Balitmore/Courtesy of the International Center for Photography
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    Hey, Mister, What Are You Doing to the Poor, 1972, photo silkscreen
    Emory Douglas/Artists Rights Society, New York/Courtesy of the International Center for Photography

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Take this famous clip of Paul Robeson in Showboat, singing "Old Man River," in 1936.

"See the sadness in his eyes," Berger says. "We see his own sense of disenfranchisement in a Hollywood that wouldn't let him play a role that was as great as he was."

Vintage poster of young schoolboys i i

Where Every Boy Can Dream of Being President (from the series This Is America), 1942 Courtesy of Sheldon-Claire Co. Records/Smithsonian hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Sheldon-Claire Co. Records/Smithsonian
Vintage poster of young schoolboys

Where Every Boy Can Dream of Being President (from the series This Is America), 1942

Courtesy of Sheldon-Claire Co. Records/Smithsonian

The second central idea in the exhibition, Berger says, is invisibility. One poster from the Cold War says, "This is America, where every boy can dream of being president. Keep it free." But there's a problem with the image, Berger says: "Every boy in the picture is white, making it clear that this aspiration didn't apply to black Americans."

One part of the show focuses on Gordon Parks, a black photographer and filmmaker. Parks himself said his most powerful weapon in the struggle against racism was his camera. "Indeed, in picking up the camera and aiming it at the right subject and distributing it through the right channels," Berger says, "you could dramatically change people's perceptions not only of themselves but of the world around them."

Berger says the movement needed images to push itself forward, and a new medium — television — needed images that people could return to night after night. Part of the power was protest, but another part was pictures.

So, for those who thought of the civil rights struggle as arrests and deaths, songs and speeches, this exhibit, which is expected to tour various cities, says that's all true — but also, we should look again. There's a lot more to see.

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