If you’re visiting the Imperial War Museum London, you have a week – until Friday 3 February – to catch the free travelling civil rights exhibition, Journey to Justice, on display in Morley Art Gallery, across the road from the Imperial War Museum. The exhibition has already been displayed in Middlesbrough, Sunderland and Tower Hamlets.
“It wasn’t about wonderful chats and sitting round planning the revolution or saying, ‘C’mon let’s vote!’ It was quiet conversations and absolute determination.” Marcia Heinemann Saunders, US voter registration volunteer and campaigner.
This quotation very much sums up the approach of Journey to Justice in presenting the US civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s and its impact on the UK. The free exhibition takes the audience through key moments and movements in the US civil rights campaign, starting with the August 1955 abduction, torture and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, in Money, Mississippi, for allegedly flirting with a married white woman.
Through a series of ‘bus stops’ the exhibit takes the viewer through to 1968 and the assassination of Martin Luther King, as well as the Poor People’s Campaign. The modern legacy of the US civil rights movement in the UK is told, with contemporary campaigns for social justice in London highlighted in the form of films about the Ritzy Living Wage campaign by cinema workers and the Save Cressingham Gardens council estate campaign in Lambeth.
The exhibition is participatory in nature, with opportunities for the visitor to contribute to the exhibition by providing feedback or adding a note at the ‘lunch counter’ about their own experiences. Moreover, the exhibition has been constructed with participation of the public. London schoolchildren’s poems inspired by Ruby Bridges feature in the exhibit. Bridges was the black school girl who ran the gauntlet of hate and threats every day and found herself in class alone for attending a formerly all-white school in New Orleans.
Throughout Journey to Justice, the impact of the US civil rights movement and its legacy in the UK feature. Three films tell the campaign of British-Nigerian artist Sokari Douglas Camp and others to send a ‘Battle Bus’ around London and on to Nigeria to reveal and protest the impact of the international oil industry on the Niger delta and, in particular, upon the Ogoni people. The bus carried the name of Ken Saro-Wiwa, commemorating Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni Eight who were executed in 1995 by the Nigerian military regime for their protests against the oil industry devastation of the Niger Delta.
The exhibition goes on to cover desegregation of schools with the story of Ruby Bridges carrying the weight of the desegregation of the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana, New Orleans – and, Barbara Henry, her white teacher. We get an insight into Ruby Bridges’ experience of facing baying crowds to and from school through audio testimony of the child psychologist Robert Coles, who volunteered to provide counselling to Bridges for her first year.
Notably, Coles’ reports that Bridges seemed unperturbed by the daily hostility she faced and even wished her adult abusers God’s forgiveness. Coles identifies Bridges’ illiterate parents as having conveyed real wisdom and moral education to their young daughter.
Through Journey to Justice, we get a sense of the ordinary people whose names may not have gone down in history but who made real sacrifices for the movement. We know the names of the first students who commenced the Greensboro lunch counter boycotts, but only the mass movement of students who endured vicious violence and other repercussions made it effective.
The exhibition takes the visitor to the voter registration campaign of 1964, which Marica Heinemann Saunders took part in, to overcome violence, intimidation and bureaucratic obstructions to help register black people for the vote and on to the Birmingham 1963 children’s crusade which lasted three days and resulted in young people, such as 16 year-old, Janice Wesley, being arrested and detained.
In the UK, the Bristol bus boycott campaign to pressure the Bristol Omnibus Company to end its discriminatory policy of not recruiting non-white conductors or drivers is covered. This stands alongside the story of Malcolm X’s first visit to the UK and the story of the stained-glass window of a black Jesus designed by Welshman John Petts for the rebuilt 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama. The church had been bombed in September 1963 in a racially-motivated attack that killed four young black girls.
Finally, the exhibition ends with the 1963 March, of some 250,000 people, on Washington, the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ strike, the National Welfare Rights Organisation (NWRO) through the voice of an unmarried mother of three, Jean Stallings, who demanded recognition of mothers in the civil rights movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968.
In people like Jean Stallings, as well as the “unknown hero” Bayard Rustin, gay, pacifist and a former Communist who organised the 1963 March on Washington – and the sanitation workers who rose in protest following the deaths of two colleagues in the back of their compressor trucks where they sheltered from the rain amongst rubbish and maggots, the exhibition highlights the many strands and elements of any successful movement.
The exhibition will continue touring the country, moving on this year to Nottingham, Hull and Bristol.
Further information about UK-based campaigns featured in Journey to Justice
Homes Under the Sledgehammer – trailer of film Save Cressingham Gardens – council homes scheduled for demolition by Lambeth council.
Ritzy Living Wage Campaign meet Jon Snow and Channel 4 – interview about campaign for London Living Wage for cinema workers.
Film of memorial event for Ken Saro-Wiwa and others executed by Nigerian military regime in mid-90s for their campaign against environmental damage to Ogoniland and Niger Delta by oil companies, such as Shell – featuring artist, Sokari Douglas Camp’s, Battle Bus.