In the spring of 1956, two young artists from Brooklyn noticed that something momentous was happening in the South. Newspapers gave increasing attention to the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. It started with the arrest of Rosa Parks on December 1, 1955, following her refusal to give up her seat to a white man, and spread into a mass protest against segregation. Instead of taking the bus, people were carpooling, or simply walking.
“They were reading about it in New York but they weren’t seeing a lot of images,” said Heather Campbell Coyle, curator of American art at the Delaware Art Museum. So Harvey Dinnerstein and Burton Silverman, friends since high school who had studied together at the Art Students League, packed up their drawing materials and took the train down past the Mason–Dixon line, noticing how their car suddenly became whites-only. Once in Montgomery, they quickly got to work in the courtroom where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the dynamic organizer who emerged that year as pivotal civil rights leader, was being tried with several other activists for conspiracy to interfere with lawful business.
They sketched expressive portraits of King, Parks, and other major figures in the boycott, and illustrated the buoyant energy of the church meetings that acted as rallies, yet they found their eyes pulled again and again to the more humble daily acts of resistance. People walking through the city, dressed in overalls or holding their jackets in their hands, moved with a slow determination that the artists depicted in vivid graphite drawings. Whereas many of their New York contemporaries were embracing Abstract Expressionism, Dinnerstein and Silverman were inspired by the realism and humanity of artists like Francisco Goya, Honoré Daumier, and Käthe Kollwitz. “Their drawings are really beautiful in how they capture the physical and psychological burden of a year of walking,” Coyle stated. “You get the sense of them being on the streets and doing the drawings right there.”
The Delaware Art Museum is exhibiting 29 of their graphite drawings in The Montgomery Bus Boycott: Drawings by Harvey Dinnerstein and Burton Silverman, organized by Coyle. While the sketches have been in the Wilmington museum’s collections since the 1990s, they aren’t often on view. The small show is arranged thematically, showing how the artists shared a similar technique at the time, and treated their work as a collaboration. In the fall of 1956, after returning to New York, Davis gallery hosted a joint exhibition of their boycott drawings. Both artists, who are still active, would go on to evolve their own distinct practices portraying contemporary life through a realist style.
Back in 2006, their 1956 drawings traveled to the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts for the 50th anniversary of the boycott. In a publication released in conjunction with that exhibition, Dinnerstein and Silverman wrote:
Although we did not then recognize it fully, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was the seminal event in the decades-long Civil Rights Movement that ensued; one that catapulted Martin Luther King onto a national stage where his vision of nonviolence made him the most respected and powerful voice on behalf of racial and class justice in America. Our drawings, however, celebrated the ordinary men and women of the black community and recorded their passion, pain, and ultimately their triumphant spirit.
Wilmington is marking its own civil rights history, with the 50th anniversary of its 1968 occupation by the National Guard, the longest military occupation of an American city since the Civil War. That year, a riot broke out following King’s assassination, and Governor Charles Terry declared a state of emergency. Tanks and National Guard troops rolled into Wilmington, and stayed for nine months.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott is one part of a citywide partnership to reflect on this history and its context in the civil rights movement. Called Wilmington 1968, it involves oral history collection, community forums, and a series of exhibitions. The Delaware Art Museum is also hosting Danny Lyon: Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement, curated by Coyle around Danny Lyon’s time as a photographer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Additionally it’s featuring a new commission by artist Hank Willis Thomas, Black Survival Guide, or How to Live Through a Police Riot. His layered retroreflective screen prints reveal, when illuminated, newspaper photographs beneath archival material, in particular selections from a staple-bound 1968 pamphlet Thomas found at the Delaware Historical Society with the same title as his exhibition. It begins: “Because you are black, this booklet is important to you. It may help save your life,” and has advice ranging from stocking up on food in your home, to engaging with police, to knowing what to do when someone has a heart attack.
Decades after the boycott, Dinnerstein and Silverman’s drawings are still moving, communicating the strength of collective everyday resistance. As King would later declare in his December 20, 1956 statement on the end of the boycott — given the day before he and other African Americans legally sat in the front of a Montgomery bus for the first time — they “came to see that, in the long run, it is more honorable to walk in dignity than ride in humiliation. So in a quiet dignified manner, we decided to substitute tired feet for tired souls, and walk the streets of Montgomery until the sagging walls of injustice had been crushed by the battering rams of surging justice.”
The Montgomery Bus Boycott: Drawings by Harvey Dinnerstein and Burton Silverman continues through September 9 at the Delaware Art Museum (2301 Kentmere Parkway, Wilmington, Delaware).
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