DuSable exhibit explores civil rights movement

  • By KRISTIN BROWN
  • Medill News Service
  • January 18, 2006 @ 3:17 AM
Walk into the main gallery at the DuSable Museum of African American History, and you'll walk into a Chicago that many may have forgotten and some have never seen at all.

A Right Given But Denied: Exploring the Civil Rights Movement opened Jan. 14. at the museum, 74 E. 56th Place, and explores the history of civil rights in America with the city of Chicago acting as a prominent character.

The photographic exhibit opened two days before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the civil rights leader's enormous influence on Chicago can been seen on every wall.

"It's apropos to be able to look at what he did in this city and how he affected this city," said Stephanie Davenport, the museum's education director.

Davenport said that during the civil rights movement, many northerners, including those in Chicago, felt superior to the South because there, race relations seemed worse. King, she said, changed that.

"There was a deeper separation and deeper dislike for people not your color that he found when he came here," she said. "He came here and said, this is more racist than what I found in the South. It was an awakening for some people in the North. The problem was not with location, but with the heart's condition."

In large black-and-white photos displayed along the gallery walls, King stands in the dusty shadows of the looming Robert Taylor housing projects, and, later, spotlit before a massive audience at the Chicago Ampitheater. He is shown with crowds of demonstrators streaming out of Soldier Field towards City Hall, and he stands on the back of a pickup truck, greeting people at Liberty Baptist Church on the South Side.

But although King and the tumultuous events of the 1960s often serve as the face of the Civil Rights era, the photos and artifacts of this exhibit date back farther -- about 200 years.

The exhibit explores the struggle of African Americans to have basic constitutional rights recognized by local governments. It displays a copy of the Declaration of Independence hung next to a copy of a bill of sale for slaves; the details of the Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation; and photos of student sit-ins in front of the old Wieboldt department store on State Street. There is also a brief documentary film on the era.

The majority of the exhibit, however, consists of modern still photographs, most of which were taken by longtime Chicago photographer John Tweedle and are part of the museum's permanent collection.

Chicago serves as the backdrop for issues that plagued the whole country, including school segregation, race riots and segregated housing. Some of the photos are, sadly, quite graphic, like a snapshot of a white mob chasing and throwing bricks at a black victim in front of a crumbling West Side house.

Others feature old newspaper clippings from the ChicagoTribune and the Chicago Defender, blaring headlines like "Pupil segregation banned" and other key moments of the civil rights movement.

Davenport said the exhibit's opening sparked discussion among attendees.

"People were spending a lot of time listening to the film, looking at the pictures," she said. "Some had lived through that time, and they were telling it to the younger generation. That's important, because we need to extend tolerance to the younger generation, and we don't often extend that to them.

"The exhibit shows what a collaboration between people of like hearts and like minds have been able to overcome," she added.

A Right Given But Denied: Exploring the Civil Rights Movement will run through April.

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