Needless to say, the Civil Rights era of the '60s was an extraordinarily difficult and troubling time. The racial discrimination that characterized much of America and most of the South prior to the Civil Rights movement looks truly alien in retrospect, a legacy of evil that seems almost inexplicable today. Although the changes that overturned longstanding segregationist traditions were wrenching at the time, the moral clarity of the Civil Rights struggle was and is fairly self-evident. The Nazi-like idea that human beings could be discriminated against because of their skin color was not only obviously wrong and contrary to the ideals implicit in the U.S. Constitution, but also nonsensical. If there was ever such a thing as fighting "the good fight," this was it.
Today, after decades of mixed progress, it's harder to draw that clear line in the sand. Today, the old Civil Rights ideal of a colorblind society has been co-opted by conservatives on the Supreme Court to repeal affirmative-action programs. When some black ministers denounced critics of District Attorney Eddie Jordan -- whose low conviction rate spurred calls for his resignation -- as "racists," many people of all races shook their heads in bafflement. Recently, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, who is black, blamed the overuse of charges of racism by persons acting on behalf of their own agenda for the erosion of that word's formerly cathartic power -- even as racism remains, as he put it, "epidemic" in America. The works in this show celebrate the Civil Rights movement of yore while hinting at more complex contemporary realities.
Actually, this exhibit was meant to coincide with a new musical composition by Hannibal Lokumbe that will premier at the Contemporary Arts Center in September, but it also seems timely in light of recent racial tensions that have arisen amid the frustrations of a city struggling to rebuild. Given the complexities of the moment, a look back at a period characterized by the moral clarity of a just struggle can be inspiring. Probably no portrait of an age could be clearer than Ernest Withers' photographs of Memphis in the '60s, lucid views of black folks riding in the front of the bus for the first time, of a city sign at the Memphis Zoo that read "No White People Allowed in the Zoo Today" as blacks enjoy their turn, of soldiers ushering black kids into a school past white protesters amassed on the steps. It looks like apartheid South Africa, but it's Dixie back in the day.
Willie Birch's Remembering Civil Rights is a lunch-counter stool poetically transformed into an African-style fetish object with nails and text. As a teen, Birch was jailed for participating in the local Woolworth's lunch-counter protest in 1962, and this sculpture is his poignant reminder of the sacrifices made by so many in those troubled times. No less poignant is Thornton Dial's Strange Fruit, Alabama Grapes, based on the Billie Holliday song of the same name, about bodies found hanging from nooses in Alabama trees. It's a theme reprised in the work of Atlanta artist Kevin Cole, whose Civil Rights-activist grandfather once took him to an empty lot near his home to show him a tree where black men had been hanged by their neckties for attempting to exercise their right to vote in Pine Bluff, Ark. Sculptor John Scott's Third World Banquet Table poetically connects issues of race and poverty to the global legacy of colonialism in place settings of twisted nails, spikes and thorns.
The Civil Rights victories of the past and the ironies of the present inspire the work of Birmingham visionary sculptor Joe Minter. Here, a cross covered with found objects features painted comments questioning recent legal attacks on affirmative-action programs. Jeffrey Cook's colorfully complex found-object sculpture Making of a Melody weaves themes of racial struggle, African art and modern ironies into a single large sculpture that alludes to the human condition as it is experienced in Central City. Finally, Martin Payton's sublime steel sculptures evoke African art while paying tribute to the genius of the legendary jazz masters as avatars of transcendence -- that quality of grace inherent in all people who strive to make the world a better place.