© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

At Kansas City's Black Archives, Images That 'Helped Motivate Political Activism'

Collection of Civil Rights Archive
CADVC-UMBC Baltimore Maryland
'Julia Lunch Box and Thermos,' one of the images in 'For All The World To See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights' at the Black Archives of Mid-America

“Let the world see what I’ve seen.”

These were the words of Mamie Till Mobley, mother of Emmett Till, when she allowed the media to use an infamous photo of her 14-year-old son’s mutilated body upon his death in 1955.

More than half-a-century later, a traveling exhibition inspired by Mobley’s declaration has taken up residence at the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City. “For All The World To See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights” is an exploration of visual imagery in the civil rights era from the 1940s to the 1970s.

The exhibition presents posters, photographs, books, television, film and other media to encourage visitors to reflect on how representation of African Americans has affected the fight for racial equality.

"From documenting the ravages of Jim Crow segregation in the South to reporting on more subtle forms of racism in the North, these pictures helped motivate political activism in the African-American communities," the exhibition's curator, Maurice Berger, told KCUR in an email.

Credit National Museum of African American History and Culture
Earnest C. Wither's photograph of sanitation workers assembling in Memphis in 1968 is part of 'For All The World To See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights' at the Black Archives of Mid-America

Berger is chief curator at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. This traveling exhibition is a smaller version of a full-scale one, which visited venues such as the International Center of Photography in New York City and the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

The images, Berger said, also inspired "an acknowledgement among white Americans that racism was a real and present danger to democracy, undermining the lives across the nation."

Credit Collection of Civil Rights Archive/CADVC-UMBC, Baltimore, Maryland
Dorthea Towles Church on the cover of Sepia Magazine, November 1959. Church was the first successful black model in Paris.

Prominent in the exhibition are photographs by Gordon Parks, who was born in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1912. Parks became famous during the Civil Rights Movement for documenting the social and economic effects of racism on black Americans.

“Gordon understood that photography could play more than one role in the struggle for racial equality and justice,” Berger said.

“On the one hand, it could offer evidence of the destructiveness of segregation and racism. On the other, it could celebrate the power, strength, and self-possession of African Americans."

Parks' photography, Berger said, "empowered black people in the face of withering stereotypes while inspiring 'empathy' in white people, as Gordon would say. That underscored that the lives of people of color where little different from their own, except in the prejudice that they experienced on a daily basis.”

Credit Collection of Civil Rights Archive/CADVC-UMBC, Baltimore, Maryland
Aunt Jemima and Uncle Mose salt and pepper shakers from the 1950s.

“Visual culture has just been so important historically as it pertains to how black people have been portrayed, perceived, treated,” said Glenn North, director of education and public programming at the Black Archives.

“We felt that it was very relevant to what is going on here, with us being so close to Ferguson and the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement,” North said.

The exhibition, which was also on display this spring at the Wyandotte County Historical Museum in Bonner Springs, will visit 45 venues through 2023 as part of a tour funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

After it leaves Kansas City in August, it will be on display at the Kansas African American Museum in Wichita from November to January.

“For All The World To See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights,” 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday through August 11 at the Black Archives of Mid-America, 1722 E. 17th Terrace, Kansas City, Missouri 64108; 816-221-1600.

Courtney Bierman is a KCUR intern. Follow her on Twitter @courtbierman.

KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.