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'Road To Freedom'
at Skirball Cultural Center, West Los Angeles, California
Feature by Marlena Donohue

'The Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956-1968: offers us a look back at the events and personalities who put body and mind on the line to work toward one of thte 20th century's greatest goods - racial equality.

As we enter 2010, we might ask:  what has not been said or seen with respect to the gnarled national--and by extension global--history of racism, ethnic inequality and power?

We have come from the hardest hitting indictments of race relations in this country mouthed by the frightfully simplistic Louis Farrakhan, to the subtlest visual reflections on the liminal and constructed nature of race offered by Carrie Mae Weems. We have heard from Dr. Frantz Fanon, the gifted psychiatrist and social theorist who wrote with wrenching poignancy what it meant emotionally and experientially to walk in your skin each day when exposed to media stereotypes and racial acrimony.  

Perfectly timed to awaken and interrogate the shades of gray with respect to race and civil rights in this country today, “The Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956-1968” offers us a look back at the events and personalities who put body and mind on the line to prep history for the momentous reality of a first U.S. President of color. To its credit, the exhibition raises these issues of where we were and where we now stand in an even-handed, neither overly radical nor Pollyannaish manner.

Indeed we can say that Dr. Fanon was writing in the troubled 1950s and ‘60s; so we all raise our voices together in response to this show, saying “But that was then and this is now.” And here we often invoke the favored syllables of the liberal humanist, the ones that make the project of equality sound tidy and complete:  “progress.”

That is not to sound cynical or to deny the amazing advances chronicled so well in "The Road to Freedom.” Rather these comments are by way of commending this endeavor in its ability to inspire us to review the big picture and stay vigilant about where we are headed. And it is a show that by extension calls us to other more indirect subtexts of equality: The same needed mindfulness can be pointed out with respect to progress in gender rights: Our twenty-something young women forget the inroads and are compelled to note “look at me now, baby; I can show my butt crack in $200 low riders, free at last, free at last. . .” Not quite.

So here then is an antidote that stands as art and as record. Culled from a variety of journalistic sources, commendable as good art practice and accurate visual record, the photos unfold culture-altering events like Rosa Parks’ arrest, the bus strike in Alabama, the March on Washington, the assassination of Dr. King, the first peace sit ins. They are one after another, and for lack of a better word iconic, plain and simple. The lessons they offer are not just about race relations, but about gender and power: we confront the stark and now forgotten reality of a young teenage girl in starched petticoats--just a girl like every other of that era--calmly staring down the armed national guardsman who angrily bars her entry into an all white high school after the last appeal of Brown vs. Board of Education was lost.

We know that a photo is never a pure document of the “real,” yet as much as they can be these are painfully honest snapshots taken on the fly (quite literally since the photographers were often subject to violence as well) of a time we must continue to think about. The nearly 200 photographs and other history-making archival documents include things like telegrams from President Kennedy to racial freedom fighters, and a diminutive Rosa Parks' finger prints upon her arrest in 1956. The images here are nearly to the one what Henri Cartier Bresson called “definitive moments;” they are chilling in the extreme because we see the tangible record of a drinking fountain marked with a racial epithet and the word “only” beside it. We see images of high-powered water hoses tuned on non-violent black youths. We see images of the weary walkers who marched to Washington, who sat-in peaceably while being clubbed in drug stores. In stark contrast to the present day, when it seems the most “radical” thing some young influential man of color can do is interrupt the Music Video Awards and give a shout out for Byoncé instead of the white winner, these are lessons in critical and committed action both in terms of the personal cost and societal value of real change.

One remarkable photo shows that moment Warhol immortalized in his ever so pretty lithos called "Race Riots," where you are first seduced by his color and then shocked as you make out large dogs set upon spindly black men, tearing their trousers off them.  Here the actual photos of those events remove the slick veneer of Warhol’s brilliant view, yanking that moment out of the context of gallery commerce and into our not so distant history. We are shamed for a moment, but subsequently encouraged by the light years of advances we have made. We are finally rendered vigilant against the stealth racial tension that still exists but is elided behind buzz phrases such as “post-racial America” or “transnational world.”

Two subtexts are light handedly addressed here that are eye-openers or serve as reminders: for reasons this writer cannot understand, there has been, broadly speaking, tension in the last two decades between the African American community and the Jewish community. That this is fluid, nuanced and even re-defining  itself is a given, but this tension is a fact, and this poignant exhibition and the venue in which it is presented recall that the liberal Jewish agenda has always aligned itself with civil rights and the black cause for justice. It is hard not to notice that the non-blacks who joined the freedom fighters were disproportionately Jewish students and intellectuals.  To my own surprise, while events were exploding in Alabama and Washington, we see here images of students right here in Los Angeles also sitting in at Kress drugs stores and getting battered and arrested at Cal State Northridge for acts of solidarity and consciousness raising.  

What repeatedly went through mind as I looked at the contents of this show was a paraphrase of Martin Luther King’s observation: the arch of history is long, its curvatures do all sorts of things, from moving us forward to depositing us in airless hidden holes that resist change. But in the end we have to believe that this arc is driven by justice.

Published courtesy of ArtScene ©2009



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