Saturday, May 22, 2010

Civil rights imagery

A timely show opens in New York.

This clip opens the show, organized by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. And it is an example of a type of image to which black Americans were once expected to conform: the servant or underling. Another role was the clown, as seen in 1940s Aunt Jemima figures and postcards of black kids eating watermelon.

Such images didn’t reflect reality; they created it, or tried to. They were a common part of the cultural landscape until the 1960s, as were, in the South at least, racist enforcer emblems like “Whites Only” signs.

At the same time, black Americans were responding with images of their own, self-images. In the first decade of the 20th century, W. E. B. Du Bois founded journals that combined reporting on race-based abuses with affirmative visual content, often in the form of photographic portraits of blacks. And in 1945 a young entrepreneur, John H. Johnson, started Ebony, a Life look-alike that covered the burgeoning civil rights movement and addressed itself to the lifestyle interests of a rising black middle class. Many other such magazines — Jet, Sepia, Hue — followed.

Their arrival coincided with the rise of celebrity athletes like Jackie Robinson and Althea Gibson, who also caught the eye of the mainstream white press. And television gave visibility to black performers. While early situation comedies like “Amos ’n’ Andy” still traded in old stereotypes, integrated variety shows introduced an urbane new generation of singers. Even there, the limits to acceptance remained stringent. When Nat King Cole ventured into a variety show of his own in 1956, sponsors stayed clear for fear of alienating their Southern markets.

The South was still a place to fear. A year before Cole’s show was broadcast, a Chicago teenager named Emmett Till visited relatives in Money, Miss. Word went out that he had rashly asked a white woman for a date. Three days later, the woman’s husband and two other men dragged him from where he was staying, beat him to a pulp and tossed his body into the Tallahatchie River.

When the mutilated corpse was recovered, Till’s mother demanded that it be returned to Chicago and put on public view. “Let the world see what I’ve seen,” she said. The black press was present. Pictures were taken and printed in Jet magazine. A copy of the issue is in the show, open to the photographs. Some historians point to their publication as the spark that ignited the civil rights movement.

True or not, the Montgomery Bus Boycott started three months later, and soon after that white newspapers began to turn to subjects the black press had been covering for years. But by the late 1950s, television was poised to become the prime mainstream vehicle for the civil rights story. In 1963, when half-hour news programs became the norm, that shift happened. Televised images of police turning fire hoses and dogs on demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala., had an instant effect on public opinion and national politics.

Rand Paul and his fellow proudly ignorant glibertarians should be required to see such images. Though I doubt anything can shake their belief that "freedom" is about "me."

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