The Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement

Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his famous “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963

What is equality and how exactly is it determined?

All throughout American history, the problem of racial inequality seems to have persisted. Even to this day, we can see issues regarding racial discrimination and injustice on the news across our nation and even around the world. In particular, African Americans have fought so hard for their rights and for anti-discrimination laws to be passed, so why does the problem still exist? Why can’t we all treat each other equally without judging the skin color and race of others?

Remembering the History of African Americans

Recently, I got to learn about and recollect the history of African Americans in two of my classes. It was such a coincidence how closely the materials overlapped and it also gave me a great opportunity to think deeply about how the past still connects to the world today as well as in the future.

African Americans are not the only racial group that have been discriminated against throughout American history; other groups, such as the Chinese and the Japanese, also had similar experiences when they first immigrated to the United States from their home countries. Issues regarding racial discrimination, particularly against African Americans, are still prevalent today across the nation.

Art and African American History

As I dived deeper into the materials on African Americans, I also started to discover how art played a role in shaping Black history.

In the 1960s, African Americans and many others utilized new advances in technology, such as television, telephone, newspaper, to promote the Black social movement. These media outlets allowed people to pass on information to each other quickly. Another way people used to spread their messages was through different forms of art — such as paintings, photographs, posters. In class I got to view images and posters made by prominent photographers and artists of the time and even tried to decipher the messages of them. I have realized that through those photographs, a special sort of aesthetic was created and a changing nature of “blackness” was defined. “Blackness” is no longer what I had always thought it to be. It is in fact unique in many ways.

Among the many organizations involved during the civil rights movement, I was particularly interested in the two that were discussed in class.

SNCC — Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — was one of the most prominent civil rights organizations during the 1960s and played a significant role in organizing sit-ins, freedom rides, and other events that helped to unite African Americans to fight for equal rights. It gives young people, especially students, more of a voice in the movement.

I found the work of Matt Herron particularly interesting. He was a movement photographer, a social documentarian, and a photojournalist that worked for the SNCC. One of his works is displayed above. This was shown and discussed a few times during lecture, and I thought it was very representative of the movement and of SNCC. In our society, African Americans have often been misrepresented by negative public perceptions. Through media distortions and stereotypes, they are usually portrayed with exaggerations in relation to drug-related crime, unemployment, and poverty. However, in this poster shown above, the artist created a counterculture portrait where African Americans were not portrayed the way they are usually perceived. It really tries to emphasize the “nonviolence” theme in SNCC. The two African Americans shown are standing up for themselves and demanding justice. They seem to be peaceful and are not conducting violence in any way. This poster expresses the unity, the close-knit relationship, and peacefulness the African Americans had in fighting for their cause.

Another prominent activist group at the time was the Black Panther Party. Similar to the SNCC, their goal was to protect local communities from racial discrimination. However, unlike the SNCC, they were more militant and were not afraid to use weapons to fight for justice. This can be seen in many of their posters, such as the one shown above by Emory Douglas. The African American woman depicted is holding a gun, expressing herself as strong and powerful and that she will not merely succumb to injustices but rather actively stand against them. As an African and as a woman, she defies societal discriminating stereotypes that Africans and women can also have power, just like Whites and men. The purple and pink rays emanating behind her give off a heroic vibe, as if it is symbolizing that she can embark on the changes and will become a hero of the movement.

“I have a dream…” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

From the beginning when the Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, and through events like the public school integration at Little Rock as well as the passing of many anti-discrimination laws, to when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech, the civil rights movement united the effort of many people across the nation to fight for a similar cause. By calling for freedom and justice to all people in the United States, King provided hope and optimism for the American future. Although his speech and assassination marked the end of the civil rights movement, the push for civil rights continued.

Today…

Over the decades, inspired by the civil rights movement, many discriminated groups — such as LGBT, Native Americans, women, minority groups — have pushed for their inclusion in the American society just like how the African Americans did in the 1960s.

In fact, till this day, there are still activist movements organized by African Americans pushing for equality, similar to the civil rights movement. In recent years, with the increasing issues regarding police brutality and racial profiling, the movement known as “Black Lives Matter” started to campaign against violence and racism toward black people. Though the tactics and philosophy of Black Lives Matter might be different from those of the civil rights movement, they both share a similar vision in creating a safer and fairer community for African Americans.

Some might consider Black Lives Matter a re-birth of the civil rights movement, while others might find it controversial and think that “all lives matter.” Despite differences in the way these movements are viewed and conducted, we should all understand that these people who share similar visions all come together and are not afraid to fight for what they want and what they believe in. By opposing to social norms and common perceptions, they are able to create a counterculture that they identify themselves in.

Whether or not we believe in the way they present themselves, we should learn to appreciate their strong endurance in fighting for their rights.

After all, we together are “one nation…, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

We must unite and work together to fight for greater, more serious problems that might plague our country and our future generations.

Power of Media and Art

After this lesson, not only have I gained more knowledge and insight on the civil rights movement, but now I also realize that similar goals of various organizations and individuals can be represented by different styles of art. I have discovered how powerful media and art can be in portraying just about anything. In order for the right message to be brought across, however, requires the correct representation of the images and messages.

With the advanced technologies that we have today, it is very easy for us to capture important moments in our lives. I still remember how the audience in one of the lectures was asked if anyone had been involved in a protest lately and had used their cell phones to take pictures or record videos. This brought about the message that anyone can easily document events that happen in their lives using technologies, but what is important is how differently people capture those events and why they do it in their perspectives. The different ways people see things allow other people to better understand what is happening to them as well as to the world around them. Therefore, it is important to realize that no one’s opinion should be neglected in any way and that everyone’s voice matters.

I am inspired to make a difference and not be afraid to have my voice heard.