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martin_luther_king_memorial

This year, Martin Luther King Jr. Day will be observed on Monday, January 18. There was great fervor to honor MLK Jr. after his assassination in April of 1968. After his death, labor unions campaigned to name a federal holiday in his memory. There was some initial resistance in Congress, as you would probably expect.

Two criticisms were raised against the motion: the first was that a paid holiday for federal employees would be economically disadvantageous. For any of you who may find that to be insulting to MLK Jr., and that there may be subtle racial undertones to this line of reasoning, bare in mind that this argument was made from both parties, and is a common argument against the addition of any federal holidays to the calendar year. The second criticism was more targeted toward tradition;Fe until MLK Jr. Day, no private American citizen had ever been granted a federal holiday; the other individual men who have federal holidays are George Washington and Christopher Columbus. In time, however, Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law late into the year of 1983.

Today, around 26% of Americans celebrate MLK Jr. Day. If that sounds low, and for comparison’s sake, around 21% of Americans celebrate Memorial Day, 8% celebrate Columbus Day, and 90-95% celebrate Christmas.

I don’t wish to speak about the artwork created during The Civil Rights Movement in order to be politically poignant, or hit you over the head with a political message. That’s not my job as a writer for this newspaper, and you’ll find politically-centered writing earlier in this and every edition! In The American Mind, Words from Winterbilt and in Common Cents. This article is not an endorsement of the Black Lives Matter movement, although the numerous arguments for and against this argument deserve consideration in their respective place. You will find, in this section of the paper, an insight into the artwork created by those who felt marginalized on a public and governmental level. Let’s take a look into how these feelings were expressed.

Why not start with the easiest one to understand, Barbara Jones-Hogu’s Unite (1971)? This piece was created in a period of time some historians refer to as the Post-Civil Rights Movement, the time where black Americans needed to decide the necessary steps of desegregation in American society, governmental and non-governmental.

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Unite, 1971

This piece is both direct and subtle in its intentions. It is a screen print, 22 ½ by 30 inches, and includes several African-American men and women standing side-by-side, looking into one another’s eyes with their fists held in the air. Behind them is the word Unite! in bright capital letters, written multiple times in a number of different colors. The piece is direct, as you can probably surmise, in the fact that this group of men and women are looking to unite against an injustice. There is one woman in the piece who does not stare at another person in the painting, instead directing her gaze at the viewer. This, again, is Jones-Hogu’s way of asking whether you, yourself, will fight for unity.

But it’s subtle as well. Why would she choose such bright, distracting colors and lettering? Wouldn’t you think that for such a revolutionary movement, with black men and women in such a struggle for freedom and equality, that the primary draw to the viewer ought to be these men and women in the first place? Or maybe The Civil Rights Movement had more significance than just the black men and women who were being mistreated at the time. Perhaps, instead, we ought to direct our attention toward all forms of unification against injustice. The Civil Rights Movement is about more than just African-Americans; it is simply an instance of history where one disenfranchised group is fighting for equal freedom and consideration, akin to the Women’s Suffrage movement which led to the passing of a constitutional amendment.

Or what about a more “traditional” form of artwork, an oil on canvas by the great Allan Rohan Crite?

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School’s Out, 1936

His famous work School’s Out (1936) is an incredibly detailed rendering of mothers walking their children home after a day at school. The painting is characterized by a great crowd of African-American schoolchildren, neatly dressed, talking with their friends and being walked home by their mothers. This scene occurs in a relatively urban area, and reveals two integral details which were focal points to The Civil Rights Movement.

During this period of American history, white and black children were segregated into different schools, or if they were integrated, they had different bathrooms and separate areas to spend their time. What’s indicative in this painting is that there is not one white person in sight. Instead, a scene where many black women are present dominates the perspective of the viewer. (It is also worth noting, if this is of interest to you, that segregation of a kind still exist in American schools, but this is due more to poverty level and the location of the schools in question).

The message which Crite is attempting to relay in this painting is the nature of the sharp divide in American schooling during this period in time. Plessy vs. Ferguson ruled that holding separate facilities for black and white children in schools was constitutional, if and only if these facilities were equal in quality. Plessy vs. Ferguson still controlled the nature of American schooling when this painting was created, and Crite’s work demonstrates just how sharp this divide could be perceived in certain areas of the United States.

There were areas of the United States which were explicitly racist toward African-Americans, and one of these places (at least in certain parts) was Mississippi. Up until 1970, the Miss American pageant did not allow the participation of any African-American woman. There were critics of this idea at the time, and it is certainly offensive by the standards of the modern day. It was so off-putting that a beauty pageant was held which only included African-American women, and took place in the state of Mississippi.

 

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A Beauty Pageant, 1970

The artwork in question, aptly titled A Beauty Pageant, even in its title spites this decision by the Miss America Pageant. The pageant in Mississippi is not claimed to be the pageant; it is only a pageant. In the title alone, it mocks the notion that a competition that only includes participants of one race is not authoritative enough to be named the pageant.

This pageant took place on a street in a rural area of the state, and features four absolutely beautiful women walking in pose on an empty street, with young black girls looking on. Again, there is not a single white person in sight in this photograph. This absence is deliberate. This photograph is a black-and-white shot gelatin silver print. A gelatin silver print, for all the non-photographers out there, is just a means of manipulating film to achieve a desired effect. To achieve this effect, a photographer creates a solute of silver salts in a gelatin solution, then coats this onto a piece of glass where the piece of film is placed.

This photograph, a fantastic piece with great depth just in its aesthetic, also relays a great amount of depth in meaning. The incredibly informal venue of the photograph contrasts with the beautiful dresses and appearance of the women who take place in the pageant. It also implies that beauty can be drawn from the places that many people would choose to avoid if they had the option. Even in poverty-stricken areas with rampant racism, beauty exists that can draw us in. Finding beauty in ugliness is a characteristic of aesthetic art, and this photograph does a wonderful job in producing this effect.

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Ali Jumping Rope, 1966

The last work of art I’d like to draw your attention to is one you may already be familiar with, Ali Jumping Rope (1966). This piece, like A Beauty Pageant, is a gelatin silver print that records Muhammad Ali training in the city of Miami in order to achieve his self-imposed title as “The Greatest.” What’s striking about this photograph, an element which is deliberate, is Ali’s outfit. Ali chose to wear strikingly white boxing pants for this shot, ones that can be seen in the mirror he is staring into. In this mirror, Ali sees himself putting in work, with the contrasting black tone of his skin and the white hue of his training shorts, to work toward an ideal.

If this sounds like an overinterpretation to create a certain impression, I would understand your point of view. Sometimes artwork can be overinterpreted – strictly in the sense of trying to impose additional meaning that the artist may have intended – to follow the whims of the viewer. This is not the case here. Both Ali and Gordon Parks prepared for this photograph with these specific intentions in mind. Maybe Ali’s goal in this photograph is not so farfetched; perhaps it is possible that all of us, black and white alike, can work together as one to become “The Greatest.” Perhaps we can all work together to create the ideal society which every one of us envisions.

 

 

 

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