Every year, Congressman John Lewis has made a pilgrimage to honor the anniversary of the campaign to march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery. The journey began on Sunday, March 7, 1965, when Lewis, then twenty-five years old and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was severely beaten and nearly killed by state troopers as he led six hundred peaceful protesters in a march that started at a church in Selma and was forcibly intercepted by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named after the Confederate general and grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.
During the month of what culminated in a roughly fifty-mile protest, the path of America changed. African-Americans made up more than half the population of Selma’s Dallas County, yet violently enforced voter suppression meant that only 2 percent of African-Americans in that county managed to make it through the registration process to exercise this legal right. Numbers can be abstract. As Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s research found, John Lewis’s great-great-grandfather registered to vote after emancipation in 1867, but due to the backlash of Jim Crow rule, no one else in Lewis’s family could do so for nearly one hundred years. The coverage of Bloody Sunday, as the Selma violence came to be known, in print and on television galvanized the nation and helped lead to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that summer. After the passage of that bill, Congressman Lewis and his parents could vote in Alabama.
At the end of Lewis’s most recent pilgrimage from Selma to Montgomery, he wanted to speak at a gathering with other congressional leaders about the catalytic role of images for the history of justice in this country. I was surprised to receive the invitation to join him for this talk and expected that we would want to discuss the indispensable craft of civil rights photographers, from Spider Martin to Danny Lyon (who was a roommate of Lewis’s in the early 1960s in Atlanta, where they worked together on SNCC). But Lewis also wanted to speak about something else—how artists Jacob Lawrence, Charles White, and especially Lewis’s friend Romare Bearden contributed to the long arc of the civil rights movement by changing the narrative about African-American life. Why would Bearden’s work have such resonance with Lewis’s journey? A new biography on the artist offers a revealing answer.
An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden by Mary Schmidt Campbell, the distinguished art historian, former director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, and president of Spelman College, tells the captivating story of how Bearden’s heritage, education, community, and politics…
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