Journey to Justice: US Civil Rights Movements and Modern Legacy – Morley Art Gallery


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.

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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.

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Poem by Gabrielle K, London schoolgirl, inspired by Ruby Bridges

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.

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Drawing by London schoolchild inspired by Ruby Bridges

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.

 

Short film Review: Balcony – Winner of Iris Prize 2016

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Genevieve Dunne (left) and Charlotte Beaumont (right) star in Balcony (Toby Fell-Holden/Film Doo)

Balcony, the Iris Prize Winner of the Cardiff-based international LGBTQ short film festival, is a confounding 17-minute drama set in an estate of high rise flats and features two girls in a hostile environment. Tina is a lonely teenager who finds herself drawn to Dana, from Afghanistan, who lives with her father and does not mix with the rest of the kids.

“The problem about being surrounded by bad things is you get the urge to destroy anything good,” Tina shares with the viewer after we see her take a photo with Dana.

The film is seen through Tina’s eyes and imagination. The viewer’s assumptions about Dana, who wears a headscarf and Tina, the tough teenager, are questioned. “People seem like they care but really, there’s way more to it than that,” Tina says, as we learn more about her abusive home life.

Toby Holden-Fell’s film questions stereotypes about immigrants and the choice of Dana as an Afghani opens up wider issues of Britain’s relationship with Afghanistan. “You’d think people’d want the truth when, really, they just want to hear whatever’ll make them feel better,” Tina says at the dramatic end.

Iris Prize jury chair Cheryl Dunye commented, “We felt that the director crafted a powerful film where not a single moment of its 17 minutes was wasted. The lead performance by Charlotte Beaumont was particularly outstanding as she took us on an internal transformation that left us speechless.”

Other winners on the night included Real Boy, a documentary by Shaleece Haas, which picked up the Best Feature Award, and Sign, selected by members of Pride Cymru’s Youth Council for the Iris Youth Prize Award.

Further information

Balcony is currently available to view with a TV licence on BBC IPlayer: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b082rtyw/iris-prize-winning-film-2016-balcony

Montage of the films that competed for the £30,000 10th Iris Prize, 2016 – https://www.youtube.com/user/johnberwyn

Film Doo interview with director, Toby Fell-Holden:
https://www.filmdoo.com/blog/2016/06/28/interview-toby-fell-holden-on-balcony/

BBC “Afghanistan: The Lion’s Last Roar” – Ep 1 – Review

Afghanistan: The Lion’s Last Roar: There is a tried and tested model followed by documentarians who want to excuse the criminality of failed aggressive wars. Ten Alps plc’s production companies (in this case, Blakeway) churn them out prodigiously for the BBC. First, it is important to skate over the fundamental legal and moral precepts violated in the initial act of aggression. Then, for the rest of the programme, unleash a series of high-ranking officials from the aggressors’ military and government to tell the story.

What you get is a story of strategic muddle. None of them are really to blame. True, the politicians and high officials didn’t understand Afghanistan. They put the British military into impossible situations, underresourced and poorly directed. But intelligence is imperfect, they acted in good faith to support a demanding ally, in the US, and defend our nations on two fronts (Iraq and Afghanistan).

“The Lion’s Last Roar” is primarily from the British military perspective in Afghanistan. If the programme deviates at all from the archetype, it is in subordinating political voices in favour of military ones. As a result, there is an overt criticism of the Iraq war being based on “fallacious” claims and an open recognition that the West allied in Afghanistan with warlords who were as bad, if not worse, than the Taliban.

However, there is no consideration of the legality and morality of attacking Afghanistan. It is presumed that we all agree it was the ‘Good War’. The programme sets the scene by telling us that Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaida attacked the US on 9/11 and that they were based in Afghanistan and being harboured by the Taliban.

It is important that these documentaries avoid certain information that may cast doubt on the Western states’ right to attack. For example, that the Taliban tried to enter into negotiations with the US for the handing over of bin Laden to a third-party if evidence of his culpability was provided. The US refused to provide any evidence or enter into negotiations, instead, predictably, assumed that its military might entitled it to by-pass law. The US and its allies chose not to get explicit UN security council approval for any attack.

Moreover, in 2002, FBI director, Robert Mueller, told the press that, after investigations, he only “believed” that the 9/11 attacks had been hatched in Afghanistan and implemented in Germany and the UAE. This suggests that the US and its allies attacked Afghanistan in 2001 without clear evidence of a link with 9/11.

The initial war aim of the US and Britain was to attack and destroy Al Qaida in Afghanistan. It was only once bombing had commenced that the overthrow of the Taliban regime was introduced as a justification for aggression. This is a clear indicator that the concerns about bringing democracy and human rights to Afghanistan were not priorities – backed up by the Western alliances with warlords.

Naturally, with such documentaries (and unlike those presented by the BBC’s Yalda Hakim, for instance) the experiences and views of ordinary Afghanis – the group who have suffered the most – are of no value whatsoever. Except for some words by an alleged Taliban fighter, some Western-backed Afghani officials and a village elder, Afghanis don’t have much of a voice. Certainly, the suffering of the ordinary people, those displaced by the millions, killed by the thousands, have no real platform.

Even the families of the 453 British servicemen and women killed have no direct voice in these documentaries. Such programmes are designed to defend important reputations, obfuscate the facts of criminality and enable the next excursion.

A Preview of the New IWM London (July 2014)

Stephen Moss concluded, in his July 2014 preview of IWM London, the following:

One day, some future Big Think really will have to consign the Imperial War Museum to history. There will come a point where the first world war ceases to look like the start of everything and becomes part of a continuum. How much longer can the war on terror and the struggles of the present century be treated as addenda to the great wars of the first half of the 20th century? Something will have to give. But, for the moment, we should celebrate the museum’s reopening, and the British way of embracing difference – and diffidence. We may be unduly keen on going to war, but at least we haven’t built a monument to our martial spirit. Which other country, after all, would have housed its military museum in a former asylum? War and the madness of war.

I’m not sure that I agree. Regarding the name of the Museum, that is very much secondary to the content. The Museum does not glorify all war but, particularly, in its omissions, there is often a tacit approval of the militarism of Britain and its allies. This is partly achieved through overlooking the great suffering and deaths endured by resistors of British imperialism, be it in Kenya or modern day Iraq. Notably, the Museum’s ongoing Afghanistan exhibitions, ‘War Story’, continues to overlook the voices of Afghani victims, preferring British voices.

In its credit, the Museum’s art displays, ‘Truth and Memory’ and ‘IWM Contemporary’ have opened some space for victims’ perspectives. The Museums’ large collections of paintings capture the brutality of the dead and maimed soldiers of WW1. Meanwhile, Mark Neville’s video footage, recently on display, captured ordinary Afghani people at the market in the shadow of a passing military vehicle. In the new main atrium of the Museum, lie the remains of a bombed car from Baghdad, and a Reuters press vehicle that came under attack by Israeli forces in the Occupied Territories. But, still we wait to be allowed to hear and see directly the ordinary victims.

Read Stephen Moss’ full article, published in The Guardian on 10th July 2014, here.

BBC Two: “The Iraq War: After the Fall” Review

Iraq War: After the Fall, Brook Lapping/BBC

The Radio Times summarises this Brook Lapping Production for the BBC (in collaboration with several international media corporations) well enough in this sentence: “Senior decision-makers explain the logic of their choices in the aftermath of the defeat of Saddam Hussein, with former US Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell describing the clashes they had about who should seize control of Iraq and the actions that led to yet more violence.”

As I pointed out with regards episode one, ‘Regime Change,’ there is very little effort in the programme to verify or critically analyse most of the assertions made by these decision-makers. By way of example, Dick Cheney is shown in the programme claiming to have been an advocate for “establishing a democratically elected government as soon as possible.” The producers chose not to critique such a statement, even though Cheney’s commitment to democratic principles was proven totally suspect as one of the fiercest advocates for invading Iraq regardless of legal principle or international consensus.

All the senior US decision-makers enjoy this non-adversarial approach to their claims and actions, including George Bush, and are thus effectively exonerated by the producers from real responsibility for the crimes, errors and mismanagement described to have lead Iraq into disaster. If any US culpability is hinted at in the programme it is with the “men on the ground” such as Paul Bremer, the chief US administrator from May 11, 2003, to June 28, 2004. Bremer is, for example, depicted as acting without orders in deciding to disband Saddam Hussein’s army and, as a result, creating a new deadly enemy for the US forces.

Good faith mismanagment and error are the most serious accusations put at the US door by this programme. The producers made no attempt to investigate and analyse internal documents to establish US and British intentions. There is absolutely no consideration of the contracts secured in Iraq, after the invasion, by major Western corporations, such as Dick Cheney’s Halliburton oil corporation.

Aside from a brief mention of US torture of Iraqi detainees, no consideration is given to the full extent of potential crimes committed by US and British forces. There is a depiction of the first US onslaught on Fallujah after the killing of four US contractors; an attack that is said to have increased the insurgency against the occupation. However, no mention is made of the more brutal second onslaught of November/December 2004, in which US forces used the chemical weapon white phosphorus. 800 civilians are thought to have been killed and the heavy urban bombardment has left a devastating legacy of child cancers and congenital birth defects – a rate of toxic contamination reportedly worse than that caused by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The fundamental presumption at the heart of this Brook Lapping/BBC series is that the Iraq invasion and occupation was a good faith mistake – with the occupation mistakes largely made by maverick administrators, not the senior politicians and military decision-makers. The credibility of this presumption depends on a critical look at the internal documentary evidence of the governments. The producers of this series choose not to critique but, largely, take the deciders on face value. This is not real journalism.