The Past Is Not Over: Exploring Pain, Progress, and Humanity During the Civil Rights Movement

“The past is not over.” - Lonnie G. Bunch III

Welcome to the online exhibition of The Past Is Not Over: Photographs Exploring Pain, Progress, and Humanity During the Civil Rights Movement! In partnership with the High Museum of Art and the Atlanta University Center’s Robert W. Woodruff Library, we have combined images from the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that explore four key themes of the era: pain, progress, humanity, and regression. Removed from the storyline are pictures that dehumanize the civil rights movement so that you, as the patron, will not form a generalized and vague perspective and, instead, form an emotional connection to the real story of the movement.

By the start of the Civil Rights Movement in 1954, slavery had only been abolished for under one hundred years, though African Americans were still enslaved for years after that. Pain transcends time. In the case of the African American race, the pain caused by slavery has been felt centuries later in the form of generational trauma and post-traumatic slave syndrome. The movement was birthed from this pain. 

Since the first enslaved Africans arrived in colonial America, African Americans have resisted racial oppression. Racial oppression has evolved since the establishment of the United States of America. After the emancipation of slavery, racial oppression evolved into Jim Crow laws, segregation, and voter suppression. These efforts to suppress the Black community were enforced on both a local and national level. Discrimination against African Americans sparked demonstrations, protests, and boycotts to promote social change and progress toward a brighter future. 

Regression is the opposite of progress. When the civil rights movement took three steps towards social progress, white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan caused one step backwards. Even though laws were passed to uphold civil rights, the Black community commonly experienced domestic terrorism, especially in the form of lynchings, bombings, and physical abuse. 

In order to redefine how Black people have been depicted as less than human, we include photographs that emphasize the humanity of the activists of the civil rights movement. It must be noted that the dehumanization of African Americans affected both their domestic and work life. In public places, they lived in fear of confrontation, faced segregation on a daily basis, and were stripped of their basic human rights all because they were not seen as human.  

As you view the images in the gallery, our hope is that you will not position yourself as someone from the outside looking in, but, instead you will begin to humanize the activists depicted so that you can place yourself in their shoes through the story that we have narrated. We also encourage you to keep in mind this simple phrase by Lonnie G. Bunch III, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture: “The past is not over.” Consider how the past has spanned over decades. How are you reminded of the current times through these photographs? What moods do they convey? And, lastly, where do you see yourself in these images?


Curated by Janet Amuh, Kayla Ary, Grace Jackson, and Mayha Waddy