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Arts and the Civil Rights Movement: Life Force of a Fight for Justice

Guest Commentary



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A guest post from Lyusyena Kirakosyan, postdoctoral research scholar at the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance (see bio at the end of this post).

For more than eight decades, people have gathered at the Highlander Center in rural Tennessee near Knoxville to eat, sing and dance together, share stories and poems and create murals. They convene for these activities with the aim of strengthening themselves and their communities in the struggle for justice. I was fortunate to attend Highlander’s 2013 Homecoming recently, an annual fall gathering that brings together community organizers, scholars, students and activists. Highlander celebrated its 81st birthday this year, while the Civil Rights Movement celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Jobs and Freedom March on Washington, viewed by many as one of that effort’s most pivotal moments, since it was the event at which Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech.

Reflecting on the 1963 Washington March recently, Algernon Austin, director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy concluded that the work that event has come to symbolize remains “unfinished.” This is so, in Austin’s view, because too many Americans, and disproportionately, African Americans, still lack decent housing, a living wage and adequate education. As a result, these individuals are not yet fully included socially and economically in society. The Homecoming gathering at Highlander represented an opportunity for me to explore and reflect on the role the arts have played in advancing this continuing struggle for justice for minorities and the poor.

The weekend revolved around the role the civil rights movement can play and is performing in rebuilding America’s communities. Arts were an integral part of the Homecoming and included songs, music, dancing and performing and visual pieces. We sang “This Little Light of Mine,” “We are climbing up the mountain” and many other tunes. Songs have sustained many in the struggle against racism, segregation and injustice at Highlander and beyond. During the Freedom Rides to combat segregation in the 1950s, for example, while some songs were newly composed, others were adapted from older well-known melodies to reflect a commitment to contest injustice. The evolution of the anthem “We Shall Overcome” provides an example of just such a process. Originally known as “I'll Be All Right” and then “I'll Overcome Someday,” the gospel tune had been sung in Black churches since the turn of the 20th century. Union workers sang the song during strikes in the 1940s to convey their solidarity, changing the words to the collective, “We will overcome.” Thereafter, civil rights activists changed the lyric slightly to the more imperative “We Shall Overcome.” Ultimately, the song became synonymous with the civil rights movement and with social justice claims.

Historically, various forms of the arts have played an important role in the civil rights movement. Highlander has a rocking chair, a symbol of the Center, in honor of Bernice Johnson Reagon, a major cultural voice for freedom and justice during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In her interview in July 2006, as part of the PBS “Eyes on the Prize” multi-media series,[1] she explained that the Movement’s members did not compose freedom songs strategically; the music was instead a natural outpouring, evidencing the life force of the fight for justice. Songs used at the civil rights events and protests were typically 'congregational' in character, usually begun by a leader who was then joined by others to raise the tune to life. Bernice Johnson was also one of the original Freedom Singers, a group that traveled across the country providing inspiration and raising funds for the Civil Rights Movement.

The Black Arts Movement (BAM) arose in the mid-1960s to create a body of art to promote "a change of vision" in the perception of African American identity. BAM flourished for more than a decade among African American writers, poets, playwrights, musicians and visual artists who believed that artistic production could be key to overcoming social stereotypes that lay at the heart of American racism. However, as the creators of Perceptions of Black,[2] a resource for further study of the cultural and political dynamics of BAM have suggested, the group’s artists were actually more interested in improving Black Americans' perception of themselves by addressing internalized assumptions of inferiority, than in shifting broader attitudes. BAM cultural theorists and artists focused on developing pride in the legacy of African-American achievement along with identification with Black peoples across the African diaspora.

I asked several activists during my visit to Highlander how they saw the role of the arts in the continuing struggle for civil rights, building the resilience of communities and bringing various social movements, so-called streams, together into one “big river.” Grace Lee Boggs, a 98-year old long-time social justice activist Homecoming guest of honor observed that she sees the arts as stimulating Americans’ individual and collective imaginations: “We imagine and reimagine everything, and arts are really critical to this.” African-American scholar and activist Robin Kelley, sitting next to Grace Lee Boggs as we spoke, nodded in agreement. In Freedom Dreams, published a decade ago, Kelley challenged his readers to think like poets, to envision a new society without poverty and oppression, “limited only by our imaginations” (p.196). Another activist, artist and educator with whom I spoke at lunch during my visit responded, when I inquired how she viewed the role of the arts in the civil rights movement, that the arts were and remain an inseparable part of the politics of the initiative and of social justice, and it would be hard to imagine how the “arts can be somewhere over there while the struggles against injustice take place in here.”

These views resonate very much with the well-known “two-eyed” approach espoused by Myles Horton, famed educator, organizer, storyteller and founder of the Highlander Center. In his autobiography, The Long Haul (1997), published nearly two decades ago, Horton wrote that we need two eyes: one should focus on what is, on how people view themselves in their present condition, while the other should concentrate on their potential and capacity, what could be. While Horton’s comment referred to teaching, I believe this to be true for the arts as well. Through multiple forms of expression, the arts have engaged people for millennia in representing, voicing and visualizing their collective histories, stories and identities. I am convinced that communities confront difficulties when their leaders and residents separate the arts from their political struggles, rendering efforts to redress the latter weaker than they would have otherwise been. That division robs populations of the power that individual and collective imagination can unleash in their combined capacity to conceive of ways to overcome injustice in its many forms.




about the author

Lyusyena Kirakosyan is a postdoctoral research scholar at the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance. She has recently earned her Ph.D. from ASPECT doctoral program - Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought at Virginia Tech. Her doctoral dissertation, Democratic Justice for Brazilians with Impairments, examined contemporary discourses to help develop an interdisciplinary understanding of how ideas about justice, power relations, human rights and disability are perceived and enacted by different actors in Brazilian society.

Publication Date

September 29, 2013