We Shall Overcome: Photographs from the American Civil Rights Era
White and black, most of us have arrived at a point where we don't know what to tell our children. The framework in which we operate weighs almost too heavily to be borne, and it is about to kill us.
- James Baldwin, writer, 1963
In 1963, the cry for civil rights reverberated throughout the country. We Shall Overcome: Photographs from the American Civil Rights Era offered a vision of this important moment in United States history as documented by some of America’s most thoughtful and gifted photographers. Drawn from the personal collections of the artists, these images reflected both the power and the beauty of the photographic medium when used as a tool for social change.
The stirring and insightful words of Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, Julian Bond, Medgar Evers, and Fannie Lou Hamer offered new levels of meaning when placed beside the compelling images of Bob Adelman, Bob Fitch, Leonard Freed, Matt Herron, Charles Moore, Gordon Parks, and Robert Sengstacke. The 75 photographs in the exhibition focused on the key events and personalities (known and unknown) of the civil rights era in American history from 1954 to 1968. We Shall Overcome documents American activism, including voter registration drives and literacy training. Photographs of marches and acts of civil disobedience revealed the strength of conviction behind efforts to hold this country to the promise of the Constitution.
Curated by Robert Phelan, art historian, museum curator, and former director of Civil Rights Era Education Database Photos, the exhibition looked at the manner in which truly exceptional photographs not only provide viewers with information through an artistic medium but also challenge them to think more deeply about the issues and subjects represented.
We Shall Overcome allowed viewers an opportunity to consider the struggles and divisions of our country today in light of our not-so-distant past.
This Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service exhibition toured from 1998-2004.