“Respect Existence or Expect Resistance”: Addison Depicts The Civil Rights Movement Through Photography

Under a dark and stormy sky, thousands of people march in solidarity across a flat, barren land, some raising American flags in the air as a sign of patriotism. This moment is captured in James Karales’ gelatin silver print, “Selma to Montgomery March, 1965,” depicting a Civil Rights march from Selma, Ala. to Montgomery, Ala. in 1965. This photograph is currently on display at the Addison Gallery of American Art as a part of the new exhibit, “Respect Existence or Expect Resistance: Civil Rights Era Photographs from the Collection.”

Curated by Allison Kemmerer, Curator of Art after 1950 and of Photography, and Tessa Hite, a curatorial fellow, “Respect Existence or Expect Resistance” is located in the Museum Learning Center on the first floor of the Addison. The exhibit consists of a collection of photos from the Civil Rights era, ranging from the 1950s to the early 1970s. 

“[The exhibit is] telling the story of a particular moment in time. It’s also showing the power [that] photographs played in the Civil Rights Movement, how people used photographs to raise awareness [and] to persuade people to join their cause. So I think there’s that dual story of the Civil Rights Movement in and of itself, and the role that photography played in that movement,” said Kemmerer.

“V. Political Series, 1968-69,” a gelatin silver print by Donald Blumberg, further portrays the significant role of photography and media during this era. The photograph consists of sixteen juxtaposed blurred images of a TV screen captured during various points in the broadcasting of Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral.

“There were photographs beforehand, but at this time was the rise of TV… it was the first time that people really were satiated with imagery so that the fight kind of came into their living rooms and they couldn’t deny it any longer that racism and segregation were a really large part of our society,” said Kemmerer.

The title of the exhibit, “Respect Existence or Expect Resistance,” was inspired by a slogan on a sign Kemmerer saw at the 2017 Women’s March in Boston, which, according to Kemmerer, reveals the relevance of these photographs not only during the Civil Rights era, but also in the world today. 

“A lot of the problems that are around during the Civil Rights Movement are still present now. People are still being discriminated against, people are still being separated into categories, there are always people trying to achieve better rights. I think the way [the exhibit] relates is because [the photographs are] from the Civil Rights Movement, and we’ve been continuously having a Civil Rights Movement, equality for all different kinds of people. For [that time period], it was specifically African Americans or black people, and now we have the gay rights movement… There’s just a continuous battle to try to get everyone on the same plain,” said Anna Lang ’19, a viewer of the exhibit.

On the wall across from the stairs leading up to “V. Political Series, 1968-69” is “Charleston, South Carolina, neg. 1955-56, print c. 1981” by Robert Frank which depicts an African American woman, dressed in a clean, white blouse, gazing at a white baby in her arms.

“I think [the photograph is] saying that people are not so different after all. I think a lot of the basic things, like motherly love, are the same. And also I think it’s remarkable that the photographer took this picture because [he would have taken the picture] only if [he thought] that this [was] remarkable and different from what we thought it would be… So I think it’s still in the back of our minds that different races cannot be mixed totally,” said Skylar Xu ’20, a viewer of the exhibit.

To the right of this image hang two colored photographs, both cibachrome prints titled “Untitled from RFK Funeral Train Rediscovered, 1968” by Paul Fusco. The photographs depict lines of people, both black and white, male and female, gathering along the railway tracks as the body of Robert F. Kennedy is carried from New York to Washington D.C. for burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

“All along the track people came to pay their respects, all the way from New York to D.C., in every little town and city. These are just two [photographs] of a much larger series that we have where you can see people in the city [and] people in very rural areas all coming out which just shows the impact [Robert F. Kennedy] had on society and how it really was an entire country in grief. [The series is] really moving when you see them all together,” said Kemmerer.

When designing the exhibit to be displayed in the spring, one other major goal of the curators was to match the curriculum of the United States History course History-300, which focuses on the Civil Rights Movement in the final term of the school year.

“I just think it helps you visualize everything you’re reading about in textbooks or novels or whatever is assigned in class. It just adds another element. And on top of that, this is just a selection of the Civil Rights photos we have, so, because this is in the learning center, classes could come see the exhibition but also have additional photos pulled,” said Kemmerer.

“Respect Existence or Expect Resistance: Civil Rights Era Photographs from the Collection” will be on view in the Addison until July 30, 2017.