How We Picture Civil Rights

Time of Change, 1962
Time of Change, 1962. (image courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery)

Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement shoulder an unreasonable burden: we look to them as moral beacons. Bruce Davidson: Time of Change at Howard Greenberg Gallery displays several dozen rich images by Bruce Davidson, who sat with the freedom riders and joined Martin Luther King, Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery. It is a timely exhibition, as Trayvon Martin’s murder raises the shadow of Emmett Till, and America looks inward to find our racial hierarchy has been reformed but not dismantled.

In one image we see Dr. King, a calm face among a swirl of agitated expressions and gestures, focusing himself as he prepares to speak into some microphones. The symbolic narrative is almost too plain: King as the eye of the racial storm of the 1960s. In another, a black man and woman sit in the back of a police truck while white police officers, to the left, write up tickets and hold confiscated picket signs. The police truck serves as a theatrical prop, literally dividing the man from the woman and both from the policemen.

Time of Change, 1963. (image courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery)

Photographs like these do not come easily: behind each one lie marked-up contact sheets and unprinted rolls. They are a testament to Davidson’s eye and his sensitivity to the conditions that produced these encounters. But their beauty conceals unsettling questions about their function.

Looking at the Civil Rights Movement does not, in itself, make a viewer more progressive or tolerant. Over fifty years in retrospect, and with the comfort of beautiful white matting and black frames and gallery lighting, the clarity of purpose on display comes a little too easily.

Who is buying these images, for thousands of dollars, from this venerable 57th Street gallery? Are they bought for aesthetics alone, or does the buyer identify with the history and struggle? If the latter, are they being approached with critical distance or are they merely badges of the buyer’s enlightened character?

Time of Change, 1961. Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery.
Time of Change, 1961 (image courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery)

At any gallery fair of fine art photographs, one will see scores of Civil Rights images alongside Muhammad Ali, The Beatles, JFK, and other 60s icons; the Baby Boomers have some spending cash and want a piece of their generation’s romance. Less common, at these fairs and in those Boomers’ homes, are images of Occupy, hip hop, ending the prison industrial complex, and immigration reform.

Aestheticizing the Civil Rights Movement leads to the assumption that all fights for social justice should look a certain way, that the moral universe is long but will bend towards Dr. King in Montgomery. This diminishes the moral ambiguities and valuable debates within the Civil Rights Movement, and lessens our ability to recognize similar struggles as they happen around us. This is no fault of Davidson’s, but of the viewer and the society that fetishizes, and by extension eulogizes, this history. The Civil Rights Movement should be celebrated, by all means, but not as a closed chapter.

Bruce Davidson: Time of Change continues at Howard Greenberg Gallery (41 East 57th Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through August 31. 

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