Civil Rights Era Photo Exhibit At Nelson-Atkins Reminds Us That The Past Is Present

Nov 24, 2015

A white police officer with his arm around the neck of a black man. Officers standing in a line, wearing helmets and carrying rifles. These images are not from photographs taken this year or last year – as you might guess – but during the Civil Rights movement many decades ago. 

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, like many museums, maps out exhibitions in advance – often years ahead.

Plans were well under way for the exhibition, "Through the Lens: Visions of African American Experience, 1950 – 1970," before an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, or Freddie Gray died after being taken into police custody in Baltimore. 

Before the protests, the tear gas, and the riots. 

Photographer Gordon Parks' 'Emerging Man' was included in a 1963 'Invisible Man' photo essay for Life magazine. 'This was much more an interpretation of some of the scenes,' from Ralph Ellison's novel, says Nelson-Atkins curator April Watson. 'Here, you see this man emerging from the underground. He's looking right at us, directly, so there's an intensity in his gaze. And yet, he's half visible.'
Credit The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

"When I was seeing the images that were coming out of places like Ferguson or Baltimore, I was thinking of how much they reminded me of these pictures from the Civil Rights era," says April Watson, curator of photography for the Nelson.

"For as far as we have come as a country, I think the connections are still a reminder that we have a long way to go." 

‘Through the Lens: Visions of African American Experience, 1950 – 1970,’ through April 3, 2016, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak Street, Kansas City, Missouri, 816-751-1ART. 

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter, @lauraspencer.