This exhibition presents a selection of works from an extraordinary gift of 230 Civil Rights–era photographs to the Menil Collection from Edmund Carpenter and Adelaide de Menil. The works capture the profound changes taking place in the United States beginning in the 1960s. They include a wide variety of striking images that deal with race and politics: marchers on the road from Selma to Montgomery, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in protest, cotton workers in the Mississippi Delta, prison labor camps in Texas, and the Ku Klux Klan.
“The whole world is watching” was a phrase adopted by radical and leftist political groups in the 1960s to aggregate change, including anti–Vietnam War demonstrators, and student activists, like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. With the advent of television and the new ubiquity of printed media, with increasing numbers of photographs, in everyday life, live broadcasts and the immediate dissemination of shocking images were playing a powerful role. The media was helping to finally shed light on racial injustice and violence, and the American people could no longer turn their backs.
The photographers in The Whole World Was Watching were committed to showing the world both the struggles and victories of the civil rights movement. Their work, however, is more than photographic documentation. Featuring complex compositions and masterful play with light and framing, they are works of art in their own right.
In addition to the works on view at the Menil, a selection from the collection is being shown concurrently at the African American Library at the Gregory School, located in Houston’s historic Freedmen’s Town.
To supplement the exhibition, Professor Gerald O'Grady, fellow at the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard, and founder of the Rice University Media Center, is curating a summer film series of important films of the Civil Rights era. He will also give a lecture on how the new forms of film and photography in the 1960s served as critical tools for advocating social change.
Organized by the Menil Collection, the show is curated by Michelle White, associate curator at the Menil, and Danielle Burns, curator, Houston Museum of African American History, and the African American Library at the Gregory School, Houston Public Library.
Photos: Paul Hester