Panelists Tell Forum How Civil Rights Struggle Fueled Their Art


The art, artistic inspiration, and creative influences of the Civil Rights Movement were the topic of an often-lively forum July 16 that was part of the March on Washington Film Festival in Washington, D.C.

Hosted by CNN political analyst Jamal Simmons, the discussion featured Avis Collins Robinson, painter, quilter and former economist for the Environmental Protection Agency; Keith Beauchamp, civil rights filmmaker and Faith Ringgold, painter, sculptor and writer.

“My art comes from anger,” said Robinson, an avid collector of slavery documents and artifacts whose portrait of Abraham Lincoln is mounted in the lobby of Ford’s Theater. “Slavery really pissed me off,“ said the Harvard University graduate who was a high-ranking economist at EPA before she became an artist.

Raised in Baton Rouge, La., Keith Beauchamp was stirred by the story of the death of Emmett Louis Till, a teenager who was murdered for flirting with a White woman in Mississippi in 1955. After being assaulted in his youth by a police officer for dancing with a white friend, Beauchamp was determined to take action, initially setting out to pursue a career as a civil rights attorney.

While in law school Beauchamp came across filmmaking and said he viewed it as the best arena for him to expose civil rights injustice. “I use filmmaking as a platform for change, ” Beauchamp told the audience. “I deal with things mainstream media is afraid to touch.”

Spurred by his research and production of the documentary film The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till in 2004, the Justice Department reopened the investigation of the teen’s murder. The documentary was one of the films featured in the March on Washington Film Festival.

Faith Ringgold, 82, told of being a political artist decades before it was a fashionable pursuit for Black painters. “No one was doing or interested in political art back then”, said Ringgold, “they only wanted abstracts.”

Ringgold told the forum audience that she was awakened to the power and importance of self-expression in the late 1950’s when, upon bringing her painted landscapes and portrait pieces to a gallery’s art director who accused her of forgery.

“You didn’t paint these,” she said the art director told her. Ringgold would later take the director’s words to mean, “Why would you simply paint this, when your people and country are in the midst of such social, political and racial unrest?” Her featured exhibit in the festival, American People, Black Light, will be shown until Nov. 10 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

“Art is about telling your story,” Ringgold said. “You have to speak from your own experiences.” 

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Panelists Tell Forum How Civil Rights Struggle Fueled Their Art

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