The current exhibit “For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights” at The Kansas African American Museum shows how images created societal views. From the horrific murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till to the powerful image of baseball great Jackie Robinson, this exhibit demonstrates how African-Americans were portrayed in the United States from the 1940s to the mid-1970s.
Photographers used their skills to show a nation the stories behind segregation and racism. By bringing these images into the living rooms of millions of Americans, barriers started to become brittle.
“It (the images of brutality) changed people’s hearts and minds and brought home how bad it was,” museum curator Carole Branda said.
Kansas native Gordon Parks is one of the photographers represented in this show.
“Rather than a gun, he would use a camera,” Branda said. “That was his choice of weapon.”
But along with the depiction of fire hoses being aimed at peaceful protesters, the show exhibits images of empowerment and love. Visitors can view photographs depicting the beauty of the African-American culture through wedding photos, Sunday-best depictions and glamor shots. Magazine covers from Jet and Ebony are mixed in with stately portraits of children with proud parents standing by their side.
Images of stereotypical representations like Aunt Jemima are juxtaposed with realistic sketches.
“There was an outcry from the NAACP to change the images because they were disparaging,” Branda said. “People said, ‘Hey wait a minute, we’re not just cooks and servants.’ ”
Depictions of African-Americans on television also were changing during this time period. This exhibit shows news clips along with cuts of Pearl Bailey, Richard Pryor and The Supremes on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Copies of newspaper and magazine articles also are presented, as are covers of the Golden Legacy, an illustrated children’s history magazine.
Angela Scott, the museum’s education director, grew up in Alabama. Her father kept his Golden Legacy magazines and read them to his children. Scott said she remembers their history lessons with fondness.
Scott also said she remembers playing with dolls that were similar to the ones on display. Scott shared how important a positive image was.
“We were being told how you had to appear in public lest you show or reinforce the stereotype,” she said.
Visitors to the museum will see more than 30 images that examine African-American culture. This traveling exhibition was co-organized by The Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture and the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Along with this show, the museum has more than two dozen photographs by Parks on display in its balcony. Photographs by Parks’ daughter also are displayed in the museum’s shop.
“Wichita is very lucky to have this exhibit here,” Scott said. “It is easily digestible, but it also has a lot to digest.”