March 4, 2010
The fight for fair and equal treatment is central to the American story and “Struggle for Justice,” a new exhibition that opened recently at the National Portrait Gallery, highlights the champions of people marginalized or disenfranchised because of the color of their skin, their religion, their sex or sexual orientation, or for other reasons.
The exhibition’s complex story of American reform movements begins in the antebellum period with portraits of key figures like Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony and moves on through the 20th century to feature the visages of prominent activists like Martin Luther King and Betty Friedan. To complement the art on the walls, several kiosks offer video footage of the subjects in news reels and film clips, profiling the stories of groups seeking justice for American Indians, persons with disabilities, women, gays and lesbians and the labor movement.
Admittedly, there are some causes that aren’t represented as well as others—or at least not yet. But worry not—the plan is to switch out some artifacts with other pieces in the collections.
And that’s a good thing, too, because every high school kid is now versed in the major social struggles—namely the fights for African American civil rights and women’s suffrage. But those issues were always covered in the textbooks with deliriously broad strokes and only a few noble American figures ever emerge as figureheads for entire social movements. And, as amazing as those fearless souls were, a whole host others took up the cause and it’s great to see their faces, too—American Indian activists Leonard Crow Dog and Kate Millett, gay rights activist Larry Kramer and United Farm Workers César Chávez and Delores Huerta. That said, Struggle for Justice makes for a more cogent narrative of how social conditions in America came to be what they are today. That handful of familiar faces that still persist in our popular culture are all there and accounted for—but there were plenty more that I had never heard of before, or names I had heard dropped in casual conversation, but was never entirely sure exactly where and how they fit into the larger story.
One of the knockout pieces on display is of one of the more recognizable people in the struggle for civil rights. But in this folk art depiction of Rosa Parks (above) being arrested after refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a city bus, the artist Marshall D. Rumbaugh distorts and exaggerates her proportions. It’s a re-imagined portrayal of Parks in 1955 after she sat down so that others could stand up. Rumbaugh, who was born in 1948, was too young to remember Parks’ landmark act of defiance, curator Ann Shumard told me, but inspiration struck after hearing a Portrait Gallery historian lecture on the role of portraiture in bringing these watershed moments to life.
Struggle for Justice is a permanent exhibition and will continue indefinitely at the National Portrait Gallery.
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