New Blanton, LBJ Library exhibits spur examination of race relations

Lauren Ferguson

Both the Blanton Museum of Art and the LBJ Presidential Library have recently opened exhibits discussing the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The Blanton’s exhibition, Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, focuses on how art influenced the civil rights movement in the ‘60s, while March to Freedom, the LBJ Library’s exhibition, focuses on the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches.  

Both exhibitions come during February, America’s celebration of Black History Month, but they coincidentally have come during a time of heightened racial tension in the United States. Between the six-month mark of the Ferguson protests, Fiji House’s racist theme party, the Muslim-centered West Campus bomb threats and the deaths of the three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, it is becoming clear that we do not live in a post-racial America. The campus exhibitions, although focused on the past, contribute to the conversation about race for those of the UT and Austin communities because of the striking parallels between the civil rights movement and today’s racial tension.  

Witness, the Blanton’s exhibition, uses several key pieces to discuss civil rights, one of those being Nina Simone’s song “Mississippi Goddam.” Part of Witness is dedicated to Simone’s performance, and the video of her performance is featured in the exhibition. Simone’s song echoes through the galleries, urging listeners to “just try to do your very best/stand up be counted with all the rest” in regard to political activism, and for those in power to “just give me my equality.” The song, while written specifically for the civil rights era, is applicable to today’s racial protests. 

Similarly, the LBJ Library’s exhibition on the Selma marches closely parallels the recent protests against police brutality. In addition to documents and quotes on marches during the civil rights movement, the exhibit features photographs of the March 7, 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, that infamously became violent and resulted in the injuries of 50 people. The rare images will give museum-goers a glimpse of the violence 1960s black Americans faced.   

However, the parallels between the “Bloody Sunday” March and today’s racial tensions are striking. Following the early August murder of Michael Brown and the subsequent Ferguson protests, America was able to discuss the protests instantly via social media such as the revitalization of #BlackLivesMatter on Twitter. Protesters from around the nation were able to organize quickly and discuss race relations directly. The online display of race discussion and action caused the Ferguson protests to gain hundreds of supporters, sparking protests all across the nation. Similarly, Bloody Sunday was one of the first televised protests, and when Americans viewed the violent actions, the movement garnered huge support and resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Both the Selma marches and the Ferguson protests had a similar desire: to establish basic human rights for black Americans, and March to Freedom highlights this fact.   

Unfortunately, the exhibitions bring up the fact that few race issues have been resolved in the last half-century. People of color’s lives are still at risk due to the underlying racism in America. However, these exhibitions, while inciting discussion, also present hope.  The civil rights movement resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the rise of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and expanded black rights. In 2015, UT students are dedicated to continuing the work of the civil rights period and providing a safe campus for all students — regardless of race. The exhibitions give the Austin community a glimpse of the past, which lead us to think about our future.

Ferguson is an English and art history junior from Austin. Follow Ferguson on Twitter @LaurenFerg2.