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Civil Rights legends to unsung heroes

New exhibit emphasizes diversity of Civil Rights leaders

Published: September 5, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.


Tucked away on the third floor of the Goldfarb Library, Pamela Chatterson-Purdy’s exhibit, “Icons of the Civil Rights Movement,” lies in wait for students casually passing by.

Seventeen gold-painted religious icons hang across the length of the corridor facing the stairs, each bearing the face and the story of one or more heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. The installation is arranged more or less chronologically from 1955 to 1968, punctuated by images of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at its beginning, middle, and end.

The subjects of these paintings run the gamut from Civil Rights legends to unsung heroes. Some of them are black, and some of them are white. Some are Christian and some are not. Some of them died as martyrs in bombings, shootings, and assassinations- others continued fighting for their cause well into old age. There are men and women, children and adults, clergy and laymen, fighters and peacemakers.

All of them are memorialized in the same way: a color portrait against a shining gold background; their names and the dates of their births and deaths; an additional image either painted or collaged that relates to their achievements; and a quote either by or about them or taken from the Bible. Alongside the works of art is a short biography detailing their backgrounds, their contributions to the movement, and sometimes the circumstances of their deaths.

The artist, Pamela Chatterton-Purdy, was an active member of the Civil Rights Movement herself. In her artist’s statement, she describes her work as the Art Editor for Chicago’s Ebony Magazine starting in 1963, her experiences on Civil Rights marches and Vietnam protests, and her recent “Civil Rights Sojourn” across the South with 100 high-schoolers in 2004.

As this year marks the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, her exhibit will be traveling across the country. At Brandeis, the installation is co-sponsored by the Intercultural Center (ICC), the Martin Luther King Scholars and Friends, the Office of the Arts, the Chaplaincy, the Cultural Production program, the Peace, Conflict and Coexistence Studies program, the Brandeis University Interfaith Leadership Development, and the Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries.

Though the stylistic choices are not to my personal taste, Chatterton-Purdy’s intent and execution of the religious imagery is both cogent and consistent. Her message is explicit, and her intentions are good. In this vein, I valued the exhibit more for its artistic merits than for its historical ones. I was introduced to Civil Rights figures that I had not yet heard of, and was touched by their stories.

One historical recounting that particularly stood out to me was the recounting of the 1963 Children’s Campaign in Birmingham, Alabama where over 1,000 children, teens, and college students protested for their rights to integration, culminating in violent attacks and arrests.

Another insightful historical revelation came in the form of Reverend James Reeb’s biography, detailing the life of the white Boston Unitarian minister who flew out to Selma, Alabama to join the march to Montgomery and died there two days later-the victim of a hate crime.

I would encourage anyone in need of a study break to come learn as I did about these important players in the battle for civil rights. In addition, on September 18th in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall, there will be a Brandeis Freedom Trail Tour starting at 3 o’clock as well as a panel discussion entitled “Interpreting the Civil Rights movement: Challenges and Opportunities of Representation” at 4. For more information about the exhibit, please visit brandeis.libguides.com/icons.