Risking their lives by riding interstate buses down deep into the South, during a customarily segregated and violently opposed 1961 America, the men and women who participated in the Freedom Rides were the cause of one of the illustrious and events of the Civil Rights movement. They challenged the law of the land in the course of what was supposed to be a two week journey, forcing the world to bear witness to an ineffective Supreme Court order that was supposed to outlaw racial segregation at waiting rooms and restaurants of interstate bus terminals. But as was evident in the deep South especially, the court mandate was disregarded for the accustomed local Jim Crow laws. The Riders proved that by organizing together and trying for change, nothing is impossible.
It has been 50 years since the Freedom Rides, an event of sheer bravery, consequent worldwide shock and ultimate reform during the civil rights movement. Non-violent participation to rally for change is something well-known to many of us in the Sarah Lawrence community, given the current sweeping Occupy Wall Street protests. For the whole month of November, the Barbara Walters Gallery in Heimbold will be hosting an audacious exhibition commemorating the Freedom Rides. Having this celebration of the 50th anniversary of the repeal of the Jim Crow laws, after the success of such an inspiring historical affair in American history, is an honor for our campus.
The show is very well presented with a variety of media and artists, and artwork new and old. Curator Vinnie Bagwell, who was born in Yonkers, incorporated works of art from artists not only from Yonkers and New York City, but also Atlanta, Georgia. Twelve artists are featured, nine of whom are living and each an august presence in their respective art communities.
The diversity of the art presented makes this a cool show to see (stop in and say hi to the docent as well!), especially accounting for the historicism. Vinnie Bagwell’s Frederick Douglass Circle is a powerful piece, representing the soul of Douglass himself.The traditional portrait of Malcolm X by Chester Bloom hangs next to two Romare Bearden collage paintings representing slavery, freedom, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Bearden was one of America’s premier artists and collagists at the time of his death in 1988. Sitting atop columns, there is nothing delicate about the marble statues of young girls’ dresses, created by Barbara Segal. The two dresses are so generously textured that they have a quality of beautiful realism. The two abstract pieces painted by Jacob Lawrence are highly symbolic and powerful, part of two of his greater series of paintings. Algernon Miller’s wall hanging is very symbolic: he commissioned a woman’s collective in Uganda to create the wall piece, and the beads are hand crafted from Barack Obama’s recycled presidential campaign posters.
Also quite amazing were the adjoining activities during the first week of the gallery’s opening. Monday, October 31 was the opening reception of the gallery and the screening of the 2010 documentary, along with an introduction and question-answer session with the director Stanley Nelson. The reception was incredibly well-attended; people packed the Heimbold atrium, filling the hall. The crowd was glowing; all the guests were mingling around with genuine interest in the art and actually in each another, and people were just happy to be present. There was an equal number of adult guests and students, allowing this night to cultivate healthy SLC-fashion discussion, and generating the kind of pride that is sometimes lacking in most other types of events.
Stanley Nelson’s opening speech to his film was inspiring in itself. He first said something all of us could relate to: that he took a film class at the City University of New York because he thought it’d be fun. And now, Nelson has a powerful filmography, won numerous deserved awards, an inspirational history of activism, and a talent for moving people through the troubling past that his cinema reminds us of.
Nelson stressed how he believed change comes from young people, and it is our generation that will change the world in order to create the world in which we want to live. Additionally, he remarked that although his movie is about one particular historical event in America, he has had movie showings internationally and people everywhere can understand it. His words of wisdom were one of those healthy reminders (to us stressed out, scholarly college kids), that’s necessary to hear from time to time: we have the power to decide how to live our lives, and to not just know that, but to do something about it. Sarah Lawrence is a hub to take action for our own selves, and for something too. The Freedom Rides proved that, and maybe in the future, we’ll see that the Occupy Wall street movements do too.
Don’t fret if you missed any of the opening week programs though, because the exhibition will have a grand finale on November 30: a compelling concert consisting of gospel songs, jazz and folk music, and poetry.
Image credit: Kaitlyn Laurie, Google