Black History is Bigger than a Month: A-State Museum Hosts Traveling Exhibit

By Chase Gage
Delta Digital News Service

JONESBORO — The Arkansas State University Museum is hosting a black history exhibit, “For All the World to See” until March 15. The museum held a meeting for the local NAACP chapter to accompany the exhibit.

The National Endowment for the Humanities’ traveling exhibit “For All the World to See” is an in-depth display of the media depiction of African Americans throughout the civil rights movement, though it doesn’t start in the 1950s. According to Craighead County NAACP President Emma Agnew, the civil rights movement is a living history, dating back decades before it truly came to light.

“During a lot of the earlier periods, there was no media to cover the stories. Martin Luther King Jr. and others knew how to use the media. Before that, a lot of people only knew about black people based on what they saw on television,” Agnew said. “During the civil rights movement, they saw intelligent, motivated black people fighting for a cause. The media can be your friend or your enemy.”

The exhibit showcased both positive — relatively, for the time — and negative representations of African Americans in mass media, from historic television performances to the horrific tragedy of Emmitt Till, a 14-year-old black child that was brutally murdered in Mississippi on Aug. 28, 1955.

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“I Am a Man” sign from a Memphis sanitation protest in 1968 on display. The protest caught the attention of Martin Luther King Jr., ultimately leading to his assassination. Photo by Chase Gage.

Though the newspapers did not want to publish the grotesque photos of Till’s body, his mother Mamie Bradley wanted her son’s story shown, not just told. Bradley responded by sending the photos of her son’s open casket funeral to “Jet” Magazine, an African American publication, and soon, the nation took notice.

Sandra Combs, associate professor at Arkansas State, spoke at the NAACP event — whose audience was nearly split evenly between black and white listeners — and recalled the putrid incident. She spoke of the courage it took to have an open casket for a child that was desecrated and castrated; a child whose eyes were gouged out and penis cut off and shoved in his mouth.

“We saw that and grieved with (Bradley). When we saw that, we got a little hopeful, a little courageous. If that little woman can go through that, we can make it,” Combs said.

The exhibit does not solely focus on tragedy, though, as it also offers triumphant breakthroughs for the black community during the Civil Rights era. It boasts black athletes such as Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali who completely shifted the landscape of their respective sports while also documenting the early days of black entertainers like the Jackson 5 and Richard Pryor.

“A lot of people only knew about black people based on what they saw on television.” – Emma Agnew

However, many people already know the stories on the extreme ends of the spectrum. The lowest trenches and highest peaks of the civil rights movement have been well-documented. What often falls between the cracks are the “smaller” struggles that still persist today.

One such instance is displayed between Till’s story and those of sports heroes. African Americans have historically been portrayed through negative stereotypes that have been either missed or dismissed by non-black viewers.

Even as times progressed, these negative images bled through into mainstream culture. Whether it be the image of a child eating a watermelon for an advertisement— as opposed to an overly racist caricature — or Aunt Jemima feeding white families her famous pancakes, these often subtle jabs at the image of African Americans did serious damage to black history and has yet to be completely eradicated in the United States.

Exhibits like “For All the World to See” exist to bring these issues to light for audiences that may have been uninformed. The fact is, black history and the fight for civil rights has more of a history than can be learned in a lifetime.

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Top: A Shell Gasoline advertisement. Bottom: a postcard depicting southern African Americans. Photo of display by Chase Gage.

Virtually everyone knows the stories of King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and others, but the vast majority of stories fall through the cracks. Cherisse Jones-Branch, professor of history at A-State, spent her time at the meeting shining a light on these little-known stories.

“There are all kinds of stories that we don’t see. We miss the texture and the complexity of the stories we know,” Jones-Branch said. “Think beyond what the civil rights movement is. Black people have been fighting for their rights, this is nothing new.”

Jones-Branch opened her speech with a joke that African Americans didn’t “suddenly wake up in 1950” to realize things weren’t right for their communities, demonstrating the fight for civil rights dates back throughout black history in the United States.

The story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott is rather famous in terms of black history teachings, but transportation boycotts actually outdate busses. In 1903, the state of Arkansas issued Act 104, mandating segregation of streetcars. Just a year later, there was a streetcar boycott in the state. It would be half a century before Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat.

Viola Desmond, a Canadian civil rights warrior, was arrested for sitting in the “white” section of a movie theater in 1946. In the same year, Laverne Cook, a black girl, was enrolled in a white school in Huntsville, Arkansas. Claudette Colvin was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up her bus seat nine months prior to Parks. Colvin was only 15 years old at the time.

In reality, so much of black history during the civil rights movement was built on precedent. The famous stories are often not the first of their kind, but the first to break into the mainstream.

Black history is a living, breathing document of the lives of African Americans throughout history. Only through education can these issues be brought to life. Without knowing our history, we are doomed to repeat it. Perhaps King said it best in a letter to Harold Courlander in 1961.

“The world seldom believes the horror stories of history until they are documented via the mass media.”

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