LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
There have been hundreds of exhibits about the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and '60s, but a current show at the International Center for Photography in New York City is different. "For All The World to See" focuses on images from that era: the ads, the entertainment, the posters, and the sitcoms.
NPR's Margot Adler sent this report.
MARGOT ADLER: I confess, as someone who participated in the civil rights movement, registering voters in the South in the 1960s, I was skeptical of an exhibit that focused on the impact of television and film. After all, the civil rights movement was about protests and speeches.
But Maurice Berger, the curator of "For All The World to See," who worked on this show for six years, argues that the way blacks were portrayed in television, ads, and sitcoms was a crucial part of the civil rights struggle, and those images pushed the struggle - and the struggle pushed the images. He started by showing me the famous clip of Paul Robeson in "Showboat" in 1936, singing "Old Man River."
(Soundbite of song, "Old Man River")
Mr. PAUL ROBESON (Late Singer): I get weary and sick of trying. I'm tired of living...
ADLER: Look at his face, he says. As he's singing, the sadness in his eyes.
Mr. MAURICE BERGER (Curator, For All The World to See): His own sense of disenfranchisement in a Hollywood that would never allow a black man to play a role as great as he was. We see an image that really, truly matters, an image that suggests not the Sambos and the pickaninnies of the Jim Crow South, but something far more subtle - the type of imagery that kept white people confident in their views of black disenfranchisement and as well, fed this notion of subservience. And certainly for African-Americans, underwrote the idea that black folks couldn't rise to the level of greatness that Robeson himself - as a humanitarian, as a scholar, as an actor and as a singer - represented.
ADLER: After disenfranchisement, Berger turns to a second idea: invisibility. And he points to a Cold War poster that says it all: This is America, where every boy can dream of being president. Keep it free.
Mr. BERGER: The problem with the image that accompanies those words is that every boy in the picture is white, making it clear that this particular aspiration really didn't apply to black Americans.
ADLER: What's important about this, he says, is that millions of white people lived their lives completely free of any interaction with people of color. But that slowly changed, partly because of the entertainment industry.
So "The Ed Sullivan Show," which we can watch in the exhibition on a large screen, featured many talented black entertainers, bringing them into homes for the first time - people like Mahalia Jackson, the Four Tops, Harry Belafonte, on and on.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. MAHALIA JACKSON (Late Singer): (Singing) It was good for the Hebrew children. It was good for the Hebrew children, Lord...
(Soundbite of song, "I'll Be There")
THE FOUR TOPS: (Singing) I'll be there with the love that will shelter you...
(Soundbite of song, "Banana Boat Song")
Mr. HARRY BELAFONTE (Entertainer, Activist): (Singing) My heart is down, my head is turning around, I had to leave a little girl in Kingston Town.
AADLER: Berger says until the mid-60s, positive images of blacks were only seen within black culture, or culture marketed to black audiences. And there are, in this exhibition, examples of gorgeous covers of Ebony and Jet, and personal photos showing the lives of African-Americans that were whole and triumphant and beautiful, but were never seen by most whites. Only in the mid-'60s does any of this enter the mainstream, insists Berger. And he argues that until it did, it was very difficult to convince white Americans that their ideals and sense of self needed to change.
In one room, there is an extraordinary film clip from a documentary for public television, made in 1963 by the writer James Baldwin. He sits with a group of middle-school children.
Mr. BERGER: He asks the young men: Do you think there will ever be a black president? And one of the young men boldly answers, no, I don't think that will ever happen.
(Soundbite of documentary)
Mr. JAMES BALDWIN (Writer): There will be a Negro president of this country. There will not be the country that we are sitting in now. Whenever you say to yourself there never will be a Negro president of this country, then what you are doing is agreeing with white people who say you are inferior. What's important is that you should realize that you can become the president.
Mr. BERGER: What Baldwin tells the young man is until you change the image of yourself, the world will not see you in a new way, will continue to see you in an old way.
AADLER: Berger says this is the moment when the hankies come out. There is a lot of obvious but wonderful footage in this show: Jackie Robinson's first game in the major leagues, the March on Washington, the Birmingham Children's Crusade. But the central idea is that images were a powerful weapon. In fact, one part of the show focuses on Gordon Parks, the African-American photographer and filmmaker who said his most powerful weapon in the struggle against racism was his camera.
Mr. BERGER: Indeed, in picking up the camera and aiming it at the right subject and distributing it through the right channels, you could dramatically change people's perceptions - not only of themselves, but of the world around them.
ADLER: Berger says the movement needed images to push itself forward and a new medium - television - needed images that people would come to night after night. Berger says several congressmen at the time said they doubted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would have ever passed without the powerful images seen on television. He also says that most civil rights exhibitions start in the 50s, and end with the death of Martin Luther King. But if you focus on these broader images, he says, the movement begins way back in the '20s and '30s, and it doesn't end until the mid-'70s.
So for many, like myself, who thought of the civil rights struggle as protests, arrests, deaths, songs, speeches, this exhibit - which is expected to tour various cities - says that's all true, but look again.
Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.