August 25, 2013

The Civil Rights Movement and the Stamp of '63

I’ll be spending some time the next few days looking at the visual and media politics of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. A major narrative surrounding the story involves the challenge, for the civil rights movement and the media, to make this week more than just a commemoration and an exercise in nostalgia. Considering this widely-circulated image of an event at the Newseum on Friday, that might be a tall order. Representative of the problem, the photo literally drives home the week as (a) commemorative, ’63 even impinging on ’13 as active currency in the form of a forever stamp.

And then, if you’re asking what offsets and balances the painting, and this year’s event, in the present, it’s really not the presence of John Lewis. Rather, he’s as much a movement artifact — and an object of nostalgia, too, as the last surviving organizer of the original march — as he is a present day civil rights force. Which leaves us with the actress and model, Gabrielle Union.

According to Wikipedia, Union is known for her role “as the cheerleader opposite Kirsten Dunst in the film “Bring It On. Union starred opposite Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in the blockbuster film Bad Boys II and played a medical doctor in the CBS drama series City of Angels. She starred with LL Cool J in Deliver Us from Eva in 2003.” The write up also tells us she is in a relationship with NBA star, Dwyane Wade.

Presented to the media in Washington and interviewed by the AP for her role in the unveiling of the stamp and helping lead off the week, Union does discuss how her parents raised her “never be silent in the face of injustice.” Still, if there is a juxtaposition to be made between then and now, between the strength and audacity of an older generation of activists and the leading voices and faces of change today, what we’re left with here is rather awkward.

Similar to the way Beyonce drew so much attention in NY during the protests following George Zimmerman’s acquittal for Trayvon Martin’s murder (PHOTO), appearing in many of the photos with Trayvon’s mother, perhaps this week’s identifier is less to the young activist, political figure or change agent than it is to glamorous and the authority bestowed by Hollywood.

(photo 1: Charles Dharapak/AP caption: Actress Gabrielle Union and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., are seated on stage at the unveiling of a U.S. Postal Service stamp commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Friday, Aug. 23, 2013, at the Newseum in Washington. linked photo: Johnny Nunez/Wire caption: Beyoncé and Jay Z with Sybrina Fulton and Al Sharpton at Trayvon Martin rally in New York.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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