Art of the Civil Rights Movement

Many Artists Contributed Their Visual Voices to the Civil Rights Movement

Books by Faith Ringgold. Rabbani and Solimene Photography/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

The Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and 1960s was a time in America's history of ferment, change, and sacrifice as many people fought, and died, for racial equality. As the nation celebrates and honors the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Jan. 15, 1929) on the third Monday of January each year, it is a good time to recognize the artists of different races and ethnicities who responded to what was happening during the years of the '50s and '60s with work that still powerfully expresses the turmoil and injustice of that period. These artists created works of beauty and meaning in their chosen medium and genre that continue to speak compellingly to us today as the struggle for racial equality continues.

Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties at the Brooklyn Museum of Art

In 2014, 50 years after the establishment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, the Brooklyn Museum of Art hosted an exhibit called Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties. The political artworks in the exhibit helped promote the Civil Rights Movement.

The exhibit included work by 66 artists, some well-known, such as Faith Ringgold, Norman Rockwell, Sam Gilliam, Philip Guston, and others, and included painting, graphics, drawing, assemblage, photography, and sculpture, along with written reflections by the artists. The work can be seen here and here. According to Dawn Levesque in the article, "Artists of the Civil Rights Movement: A Retrospective," "The Brooklyn Museum curator, Dr. Teresa Carbone, was "surprised at how much of the exhibit's work has been overlooked from well-known studies about the 1960s. When writers chronicle the Civil Rights Movement, they often neglect the political artwork of that period. She says, 'it's the intersection of art and activism.'" 

As stated on the Brooklyn Museum website about the exhibit:

“The 1960s was a period of dramatic social and cultural upheaval, when artists aligned themselves with the massive campaign to end discrimination and bridged racial borders through creative work and acts of protest. Bringing activism to bear in gestural and geometric abstraction, assemblage, Minimalism, Pop imagery, and photography, these artists produced powerful works informed by the experience of inequality, conflict, and empowerment. In the process, they tested the political viability of their art, and originated subjects that spoke to resistance, self-definition, and blackness.”

Faith Ringgold and the American People, Black Light Series

Faith Ringgold (b. 1930), included in the exhibit, is a particularly inspirational American artist, author, and teacher who was pivotal to the Civil Rights Movement and is known primarily for her narrative quilts of the late 1970s. However, before that, in the 1960s, she did a series of important but less well-known paintings exploring race, gender, and class in her American People series (1962-1967) and Black Light series (1967-1969).

The National Museum of Women in the Arts exhibited 49 of Ringgold's Civil Rights paintings in 2013 in a show called America People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold's Paintings of the 1960s. These works can be seen here.

Throughout her career Faith Ringgold has used her art to express her opinions on racism and gender inequality, creating powerful works that have helped bring awareness of racial and gender inequality to many, both young and old. She has written a number of children's books, including the award-winning beautifully illustrated Tar Beach. You can see more of Ringgold's children's books here.

See videos of Faith Ringgold on MAKERS, the largest video collection of women's stories, speaking about her art and activism.

Norman Rockwell and Civil Rights

Even Norman Rockwell, the well-known painter of idyllic American scenes, painted a series of Civil Rights Paintings and was included in the Brooklyn exhibit. As Angelo Lopez writes in her article, "Norman Rockwell and the Civil Rights Paintings," Rockwell was influenced by close friends and family to paint some of the problems of American society rather than merely the wholesome sweet scenes he had been doing for the Saturday Evening Post. When Rockwell began working for Look Magazine he was able to do scenes expressing his views on social justice. One of the most famous was The Problem We All Live With, which shows the drama of school integration. 

Arts of the Civil Rights Movement at the Smithsonian Institution

Other artists and visual voices for the Civil Rights Movement can be seen through a collection of art from the Smithsonian Institution. The program, "Oh Freedom! Teaching African American Civil Rights Through American Art at the Smithsonian," teaches the history of the Civil Rights movement and the struggles for racial equality beyond the 1960s through the powerful images that artists created. The website is an excellent resource for teachers, with descriptions of the artwork along with its meaning and historical context, and a variety of lesson plans to use in the classroom.  

Teaching students about the Civil Rights Movement is as important today as ever, and expressing political views through art remains a powerful tool in the struggle for equality and social justice.

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Marder, Lisa. "Art of the Civil Rights Movement." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Marder, Lisa. (2021, December 6). Art of the Civil Rights Movement. Retrieved from Marder, Lisa. "Art of the Civil Rights Movement." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).