Art Works Blog

Celebrating the Civil Rights Act

On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which “outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Just a year later, President Johnson signed the legislation that created the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which from the beginning, inspired by the Civil Rights Act, strove to bring the arts to underserved populations such as those whose opportunities to experience the arts are limited by geography, ethnicity, economics, or disability. Given the NEA’s commitment to widespread accessibility of the arts, it’s not surprising that many of the projects supported by the agency this year are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. 
In Denver, Colorado, for example, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance’s presentation of More Perfect delves into stories from the cross-cultural intersections of the Civil Rights Movement through a mash-up of hip hop and spirituals. Birmingham Children’s Theatre is producing The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963, an adaptation of Christopher Paul Curtis’ novel commemorating pivotal events surrounding the civil rights struggle. Closer to home in Washington D.C., the historic Ford’s Theatre is presenting a run of Violet, a play about a young disfigured woman who embarks on an emotional journey through the Deep South during the Civil Rights movement. The performing arts are not the only disciplines involved in the celebration--the Atlanta-based Robert W. Woodruff Arts Center’s exhibition Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement offers a comprehensive look at the photographic images that chronicle and define the civil rights movement in the United States.
As the nation continues to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, you can join the celebration by participating in civil rights-themed arts events near you. Opening July 28, the National Park Service exhibit in New Orleans’ French Market Through the Civil Rights Lens showcases more than 50 civil rights photographs, posters, films, and audio recordings. In Los Angeles, the California African American Art Museum presents The March on Washington: A Tribute, 50 Years Later from June 27-August 24, 2014.  The exhibit celebrates the historic March on Washington with loaned items and artifacts in tribute to those dedicated to racial equality. While the exhibit itself has closed, you can experience the Brooklyn Museum’s Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties virtually as well as visit in-person its installation Revolution! Works from the Black Arts Movement.
Several programs this summer are dedicated to the music of the Civil Rights Movement. Through July 26, the New York Public Library presents The Truth is a Hit, an exhibit dedicated to Motown Records as it explores the evolution of black music from its African roots through slavery, Jim Crow, the Great Migration, urban America, and the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. In early fall, the Library of Congress will open its exhibit entitled The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom comprising more than 200 items and 70 audio-visual recordings illustrating the struggle for racial equality. 
You can also browse the NEA’s website to learn more about some of the artists involved in the Civil Rights Movement, such as NEA National Heritage Fellows Roebuck "Pops" Staples and his daughter Mavis Staples, and quilter Nora Ezell. Or listen to our Art Works podcasts with Daniel Beaty, who recently wrote and starred in a one-man show on Civil Rights icon Paul Robeson, and filmmaker Stanley Nelson, whose documentary film Freedom Riders was one of the featured films for Film Forward 2013. And for a comprehensive look at the movement, check out our podcast with Taylor Branch, author of the trilogy America in the King Years.
These are just a few of the arts events that will take place across the country to celebrate this historic legislation and a few of the artists who have participated in the movement. Please let us know where celebrations are taking place near you and share your arts and civil rights stories with us in the comments.

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