Mamie Till Mobley, the mother of young Emmett Till, used a photograph of his bloated and mutilated body to show the world just how brutal American racism could be.
Major companies used wide-eyed, big-lipped, shucking and bucking caricatures of African Americans to sell everything from sugar and soap to household appliances and comic books.
Malcolm X used the emerging medium of television and talk shows to make his case for black self-empowerment. And the country fell in love with Diahann Carroll in 'Julia,' one of network TVs first nationally syndicated shows built around a contemporary black character.
Throughout much of the black experience in America visual images have been used to build us up and tear us down. They've been used to market products and promote propaganda, as well as push the cause of Civil Rights.
It is in that space where the still burgeoning Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s emerged alongside the growth of television and the popular pictorial magazines of the day. And where Americans were at once seeing black bodies beaten in the streets of Birmingham and black ball players darting across the color line to major league baseball fields - all from their living rooms.
"Images were used not only to change white people's attitudes about race and to get them to support the Civil Rights Movement, but to embolden the African American community that had long been represented in negative ways," said Maurice Berger, a Senior Research Scholar at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
Berger is also the curator of "For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights," an exhibit showcasing more than 230 objects and 50 clips from TV and Film from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s that looks at what organizers describe as "a little-understood aspect of American history and culture." The exhibit, sponsored by The National Museum of African American History, opens Friday, June 10 at The National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
"One of the really significant aspects of this show, relative to so many other shows about the movement, is that up until now almost every single exhibition about visual culture and civil rights has been about how images documented the struggle, most often by white photographers that show the protests and the marches and the police brutality," said Berger, who noted that all of the above was just one aspect of how Americans understood the Civil Rights Movement. "I chose images that were the most dynamic in their ability to change prevailing ideas about race in the United States."
The exhibit chronicles the diversity of images from the movement days and before, including black baby dolls, family snapshots and black pictorial magazines like 'Sepia,' 'Our World,' 'Say,' and the Johnson Publishing Company magazines such as 'Ebony,' 'Jet,' 'Tan' and 'Ebony Jr.' There are video clips from TV shows, films and documentaries.
The exhibition takes its name from a quote given by Mamie Till Mobley after she was questioned about distributing the gruesome photograph of her 14-year-old son, Emmett (pictured below), who had been brutally murdered by white supremacist in Mississippi.
"Let the world see what I've seen," she said at the time, hoping that if people could see what happened to her boy, perhaps they would be more likely to support the cause of racial justice and equality.
Though she sent the photo to many outlets, both black and white, only black publications initially ran the photo: 'Jet' magazine and 'The Chicago Defender.' But from the publication of that photograph, a whole generation of activists was born and a truth was shone in a way it never had before.
"For All The World To See" is the latest from The National Museum of African American History, which is set to open its own building in 2015 on five prime acres of land adjacent to the Washington Monument on the National Mall. It is the only national museum dedicated solely to black life, art, culture and history.
Lonnie G. Bunch, the director of the museum, said that the installation "illuminates the Civil Rights Movement in ways that most people have not experienced or understood," and sets out to show what the visual interpretation of blacks in America was.
"In some ways we have gone through a variety of filters. We've gone through the Civil Rights Movement through the eyes of its leader, of the people who participated and then through gender," Bunch said. "This allows us to look at all of those."
The opening sequence of the exhibit is a clip from 'The Weapons of Gordon Parks,' a CBS documentary about the famed black photographer, where he describes his camera as his "weapon" of choice in combating racism and inequality in America.
"The show isn't just about Dr. King and Malcolm X," said Berger, the curator and author of a book that shares the same name as the exhibition. "But also about folks who took cameras into their own hands and did for themselves what a century of mainstream society could not. They captured the beauty, the triumph, the normalcy and the ordinariness that the mainstream either vilified or ignored."
Along with iconic images and portraiture, there are also photographs of lynching and artifacts from a time when blacks were ridiculed in commercial advertisement and childrens toys, postcards and pamphlets.
"Though I'm a trained scholar, I'm [also] a black man who finally sees my ancestors in this," Bunch said of the work and mission of the museum to shed new light on history. "I finally see all of these people that should never have been forgotten. It makes it unbelievably personal."