The fight for racial justice has been documented in some of history's most powerful art.

Amy Sherald’s portrait of Breonna Taylor (now part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection) is a modern embodiment of how art intersects with the fight for racial justice. But it is also part of an artistic legacy that got its start over 150 years ago and came into focus during the height of the civil rights movement.

It’s impossible to separate the civil rights movement in the United States from the art that documented it. Imagery of racial injustice and the protests which followed during the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s filled television screens and newspaper pages like never before as media saturation reached new heights. But this deluge of information inspired a wave of art with a political purpose that put a spotlight on race in America – and set the tone for social movements to follow.

Civil rights art can be traced as far back as the photography of C.M. Battey in the post-Civil War American South. Battey’s portraits of leaders like Frederick Douglass helped both Douglas (and his peers) along with the movement for racial equity gain visibility during reconstruction. They also unintentionally helped cement photography as the definitive medium through which that movement is understood. Not that it was confined to photography alone.

"It’s impossible to separate the civil rights movement in the United States from the art that documented it."

By the 1930s, artists were further honing their responses to American racial tensions and the related news events of the day. When celebrated contralto Marian Anderson was forbidden from singing in Constitution Hall for being Black, artist William H. Johnson created a work in tempera, pencil and gold paint that commemorated the alternative concert Anderson gave on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This call and response was enabled by the immediacy of radio and newsreels, which allowed for an equally rapid reply from artists in creating civil rights art.

Photographer Gordon Parks used his camera lens to unflinchingly record the everyday aspects of Black American life, highlighting the punishing, haunting disparities as he did so. One of the most moving of his photographs entitled Outside Looking In depicts young Black children as they admire a distant playground reserved only for their white peers from the opposite side of a wire fence. Contemporaries like Charles Moore were also instrumental in photographing countless marches and sit-ins as the civil rights movement intensified through the 1950s and ‘60s.

These works generally stood in stark contrast to the pop art and abstract expressionist art movements that otherwise dominated the period. But civil rights art was important enough to bridge the gap.

The power of the individual artworks aside, civil rights art was instrumental in forging a new cultural dialogue. Not only did it shed light on issues of race for the public, but it also fashioned a framework through which other movements toward social justice would be understood in the future, such as the ongoing pursuits of queer liberation and women’s parity.

Header image: William H. Johnson (1901–1970), Marian Anderson #1, about 1939, tempera, pencil, and metallic gold paint on paper, 37 5/8 x 20 5/8 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.318R


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