The Montgomery Bus Boycott
April 17, 2018
For the British artist and writer John Ruskin, drawing was a path to understanding. In his desire to comprehend the natural world, he depicted cross-sections of plants, geological formations, and Alpine roses in their natural habitat. Drawing, and the close investigation it requires, allowed Ruskin to better interpret his surroundings and society in his writings. As we turn our attention from Ruskin and Andrew Wyeth who both looked long and hard at nature, we lift our gaze to take in the happenings around us. This summer we turn our attention from Ruskin and Andrew Wyeth, who both looked long and hard at nature, to artists examining the social upheaval of their times. The Museum offers context to our remembrance of Wilmington 1968 by presenting the work of Harvey Dinnerstein, Burton Silverman, and Danny Lyon, artists that recorded key moments in the battle for civil rights.
On December 1, 1955, an African American seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus. A city ordinance required that the front half of the bus be reserved for white riders and, should that section fill, that Black riders must give up their seats to whites. When asked by the driver to vacate her seat, Parks refused and was arrested and fined. Parks called E. D. Nixon, a prominent Black leader, who prepared a legal challenge to the city’s segregation ordinance. In the next few days, church and community leaders organized a boycott of the bus system. They founded the Montgomery Improvement Association with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a 26-year-old pastor, as its president. For over a year, while segregation laws were considered by the courts, African Americans refused to ride the city’s buses—organizing carpools, taking taxis, and walking.
Inspired by national news coverage of the boycott, Dinnerstein and Silverman traveled from New York to Montgomery, Alabama. They had noticed how few pictures of the boycott were being published and decided to travel south to capture the unfolding events. Dinnerstein and SIlverman spent 10 days observing the trial and attending church meetings, sketching these events. Their pencil drawings bear witness to a momentous event in American history, one of the first mass protests in the civil rights movement. While Parks, Nixon, and King were all captured by the artists, many of the most powerful images depict unidentified individuals walking through the city. As the draftsmen noted, their drawings “celebrate the ordinary Black man and woman and recount their passion and pain and ultimately their triumphant spirit.”
One of my favorites is a picture by Dinnerstein of a heavy set man walking slowly toward a fountain. Gravity seems to weigh on his sloped shoulders and pull at his cotton shirt and overalls. His shadow pools on the ground below him. He trudges forward, but his path is blocked by the fence that surrounds the distinctive Court Square Fountain. This obstacle bisects the paper, stretching nearly from edge to edge, encouraging viewers to appreciate the subject’s effort. Looming in the background, almost indistinct, is the dome of the Alabama State Capitol, which served as the first Confederate Capitol in 1861 and — years after this drawing was made — the endpoint of the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965.
Dinnerstein and Silverman were two of many artists to represent the struggle for civil rights in the United States. This summer the Museum is presenting their work alongside the photographs of Danny Lyon, who chronicled the civil rights movement for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the early 1960s. A concurrent exhibition of new work by Hank Willis Thomas incorporates images of Wilmington, Delaware produced by photographers for the News Journal during the city’s occupation by the National Guard in 1968.
Heather Campbell Coyle
Curator of American Art