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Signs of Separation: The Socio-Political Climate of Andy Warhol's Mustard Race Riot (1963)
The tumultuous history of the fight for civil rights had been laid long before the appearance of Charles Moore's 1963 photographs in Life magazine, and their appropriation by Andy Warhol for his painting Mustard Race Riot produced in the same year. By the end of World War II, race relations had, in fact, occupied a central position in American life and politics. The historical reasons for this are many and include the impact of the vast demographic shift of African- Americans from the rural South to the industrialized centers of the North between 1915 and 1960; white flight to suburbs; the Cold War; the advent of television and a growing sophistication of media coverage; and the resurgence of black African nationalism. The 1950s and 1960s were volatile decades in which racial tension and social unrest dominated the lives and preoccupied the thoughts and actions of blacks and whites in the southern states, where Jim Crow laws and segregation policies were institutionalized. These laws, under the claim of "separate but equal," legally separated blacks from whites in the areas of education, housing, employment, public transportation, hospitals, libraries, courts, and even cemeteries. These were attempts by whites to deny the rights of citizenship to African-Americans by barring them from all areas of social and political life, and to instill in them a sense of fear and inferiority. The visual indicators of separation were everywhere in most southern states, particularly in public accommodations and in transportation services. Printed signboards marked "white" and "colored" dotted most public facilities such as toilets, restaurants, hospitals, waiting rooms, and water fountains.
Nineteen-fifty-four was critical in the early emergence of civil rights, for it was in that year that the Supreme Court ruled, in the landmark case of Brown vs. Board of Education, that laws based on racial separation were unconstitutional, and therefore, unacceptable. This ruling would become the scourge of segregationists and the rallying point for civil rights activists and others in support of the movement during the 1960s.
Alabama was symbolically significant in the fight for civil rights, for it was in that state's most racially divided and socially volatile cities of Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma, where many marches, peaceful demonstrations, and boycotts were organized and successfully staged. By 1957, Montgomery, the capital of Alabama and the place where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as president of the Confederacy in 1861, proudly labeled itself "the Cradle of the Confederacy" and became the key battleground in the struggle for civil rights. That effort started on a winter day in 1955, when a forty-two-year-old black seamstress named Rosa Parks, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated Montgomery bus. The arrest sparked a year of protests and organized boycotts against Montgomery's public transportation system. These events were spearheaded by a young African-American minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), who had been, only one year earlier, appointed pastor of Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. It was in this small country chapel where King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a civil rights organization that would later play a crucial role in the civil rights revolution. It was King's leadership and organizational skills, in addition to his mastery of persuasive public speaking and determination in seeing the boycott through, that propelled him to prominence in the civil rights movement. In 1958, King was arrested, beaten, and jailed for civil disobedience. His apprehension and trial were highly publicized in print and in photographs, thus bringing the young minister and his trial to the attention of the nation.
Alabama was not the only southern state to rear its ugly racist head during the early 1960s. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy was at the helm in the White House when trouble erupted on the streets of Mississippi as a result of white resistance to twenty-eight-year-old veteran and African-American James H. Meredith's court-ordered admission to the all-white University of Mississippi (sentimentally referred to in that state as "Ole Miss"). The night before Meredith's expected attendance at the first day of classes, large mobs of angry whites formed and confronted U.S. marshals who were ordered to protect him. The administration building was pelted with rocks, gunfire, and fire bombs. The marshals, who were ordered not to fire into the mob, responded with teargas and nightsticks. The confrontation left two men dead and many wounded. The next day, surrounded by federal troops sent in to quell the violence, Meredith was escorted, without incident, to his first day of classes. Once Meredith had been enrolled, Ole Miss was officially integrated. The following week, the Ole Miss incident was brought to visual and verbal life in the pages of Life magazine, thus adding steam to the furnace of change.
The Ole Miss incident was just the beginning of more volatile events yet to come. In the Spring of 1963, the civil rights struggle came to a critical head, this time in Birmingham, Alabama, when Martin Luther King was arrested and jailed for organizing anti-segregation demonstrations. King was placed in solitary confinement and it was from there that he wrote his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," outlining his philosophy of nonviolence and civil disobedience that had been patterned on the strategies, techniques, and philosophy of pacifism preached by Mohandas Gandhi. Three days after King was released, a postman named William Moore from Baltimore, embarked upon a solitary march against segregation through the South. He was shot and killed on a remote stretch of highway near Attalla, Alabama. His murder attracted national attention and moved ten volunteers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)-two of three civil rights groups (the third being King's SCLC)-to follow Moore's route through the South as a form of commemoration and public protest against his murder. The marchers were harassed by whites along the way and were arrested in Alabama by state policemen using cattle prods. This event, called "The Freedom March," attracted many journalists and photographers whose national reporting publicized the affair and won over sympathizers to the civil rights cause.
The zenith of national outrage against segregation and state-sponsored repression of those lobbying for justice, came to a head with the national publicizing of the events of May 3, 1963 in Birmingham's Kelly Ingram Park. On that day and for five days thereafter, white firemen from Birmingham attempted to disperse groups of young black demonstrators by turning on high-pressured firehoses against them. In an effort to put down the protest, the segregationist Birmingham Police Commissioner, Eugene (Bull) Connor, ordered police to use attack dogs to disperse the crowd. Scenes of vicious dogs biting into the flesh of the demonstrators, of powerful jets of water knocking men, women, and children to the ground and ripping the clothes off their bodies were photographed by white photojournalist Charles Moore and reported to the nation in an eleven-page lead story in Life magazine (May 17, 1963), then the country's largest and most popular weekly magazine. The story and the photographs were shocking to the rest of the nation and have become etched into the American psyche as the strongest symbols of the struggle for racial equality and civil liberties. The story and the images helped rally the rest of the country in opposing the vicious and racist tactics of southern segregationists. However, such gruesome events did not stop the subsequent onslaught of marches and acts of racial violence that ensued in other parts of Alabama and in other southern states. Case in point, a little over a month after the Kelly Ingram Park riots, an NAACP leader from Mississippi, Medgar W. Evers, was gunned down by a sniper's bullet in Jackson. Two months later, in August of 1963, more than a quarter of a million people, both black and white, poured into Washington, D. C. in a march and demonstration to promote "jobs and freedom," and to support a pending civil rights bill. This famous event, called the March on Washington, brought together important black and white leaders and celebrities from around the country and came to a climax with King's "I Have A Dream" speech. That triumph was only followed by tragedy with the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963. His murder not only shocked and numbed the nation, but also rekindled determination to see civil rights legislation signed into law. That hope was fulfilled when President Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1964, signed the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination at the voting polls, in schools, public facilities, and places of employment. To test the validity and sincerity of the bill's passage, there was a concerted effort by civil rights leaders to register black voters. Mississippi was chosen to serve as the testing ground for voter registration. In the summer of 1964, around nine hundred volunteers, most of them white students from northern colleges, were sent to Mississippi to help register black voters. White Mississippians reacted by setting a black church on fire, and by kidnapping, beating, and killing three young voter registration volunteers who were on their way to Philadelphia, Mississippi, to sign up voters.
The drive for voter registration extended throughout the rural South and was of prime importance to Martin Luther King, Jr. who, at the very beginning of 1965, went to Selma, Alabama, to direct a voter registration campaign there. Selma was a prime location for such civil rights activity, for only a very small percent of that city's black majority population was registered to vote. King's arrival in Selma provoked the anger of many whites. There were demonstrations, beatings, and arrests. King then decided to lead a fifty-four-mile march from Selma to Montgomery to petition Governor George Wallace to protect blacks seeking to register to vote. Wallace turned a deaf ear to King's petition and on March 7, 1965, Alabama state troopers halted and then assaulted the marchers with teargas and billy clubs. This event came to be known as "Bloody Sunday" and was soon thereafter followed by a related march to the county courthouse in Montgomery where demonstrators were charged by deputies on horseback and savagely beaten with batons.
The Selma March eventually resulted in passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The men and women who put their lives on the front lines for civil rights during the 1950s and 1960s have prompted America to confront its Judeo-Christian conscience and to bring into line its rhetoric of "with liberty and justice for all" with swift and just action. Clearly, the 1950s and 1960s were unpleasant and uncomfortable decades in the social and political lives of many Americans. Nevertheless, they constituted a necessary period of growing pains for a young democracy. Charles Moore's memorable photographs of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of that turbulent era help us jog our memories, recount and relive our past, and relay a history that is not only troubling, but also meaningful and hopefully rewarding to our future.
James Smalls, Ph. D.
Associate Professor of Art History and Theory
University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Warhol, Death, and Disaster
In a widely read interview published in Artnews in November 1963, Warhol announced: "My show [at Galerie Ileana Sonnabend] in Paris is going to be called 'Death in America.' I'll show the electric-chair pictures and the dogs in Birmingham and car wrecks and some suicide pictures." Thus, just as the media were pigeonholing him as a wacky new painter of upbeat American commodities - Campbell's canned soup, Marilyn Monroe, Coca Cola, and Elvis Presley - Warhol gave voice to a hard-bitten interest in the unsavory flipside of the American Dream. Through his art he mirrored back to the world the tragic episodes of desperation, compulsive consumerism, and glaring social inequality that were daily fare in the Information Age. To make things even more confusing, Warhol chose to play the part of a cool, bewigged Pop pundit who made only ambivalent or quirky comments. By polarizing his audience into outraged detractors and uncritical devotees he became the most newsworthy artist of his day. For example, at the beginning of the 1963 interview, when Warhol said "I think everyone should be a machine," it was unclear whether he was espousing some revolutionary form of equality or sketching a Kafkaesque existential nightmare.
Warhol made his first of his "Death and Disaster" works in the summer of 1962. With the help of an opaque projector he translated a front page of the New York Mirror into the monumental, hand-painted image of his picture 129 Die In Jet. This gaunt, brusquely rendered black and white canvas, over eight feet in height, gave artistic permanence to one example from a never-ending stream of banner headlines. By denying the ephemerality of tabloid journalism and throw-away commercial products it became a grand, symbolic commemoration of late-twentieth-century tragedy. In the course of the next two years Warhol created a striking array of pictures devoted to the grim, dispiriting, and mournful realities of life in modern, industrialized America: an electric chair in Sing Sing Prison; corpses amidst the wreckage of crashed cars; suicide victims; people killed by contaminated canned food; quasi-religious tributes to Marilyn Monroe in the aftermath of her suicide; an atomic explosion; a funeral for a gangster; and the brutal treatment of civil rights protesters in Alabama. By turning to silkscreens to reproduce authentic journalistic images on the surface of painted canvases Warhol gave all these subjects an air of grating ambivalence: painful photographic "truth" hijacked by art and artifice.
The three photographs by Charles Moore that Warhol reproduced in Mustard Race Riot were the most historically focused images in his "Death and Disasters" repertoire: they extended the life of an incident in Alabama that had violently jolted public opinion, thanks to the reporting by Life magazine. Warhol's other works under this broad umbrella were perhaps more focused on the routine ghastliness of his times, namely capital punishment, fatal accidents, and angst. With hindsight it is clear that the greater part of Warhol's painted oeuvre has a connection to the theme of mortality. In addition to the notion of sustenance, his pictures of mass-produced food items suggested the cycles of economic life and consumer loyalty. His pictures of celebrities inevitably evoked the brief heyday of a professional career, and the portraits he produced on commission glamorously stopped the march of time. The shooting of Warhol in 1968 brought him close to death, underscoring his unflinching obsessions with doom and glamour, and inspiring regularly returns to "Death and Disaster" themes. Sometimes his approach was alarmingly blunt, as in the series of paintings devoted to skulls, knives, guns, and crosses. Even when he produced pictures that were endearingly decorative and ironically "abstract" he dealt with richly symbolic subjects and materials: brooding shadows; the silhouettes of eggs; tangled webs of yarn; drips and splashes of urine; baroque remakes of Rorschach tests; and camouflage designs he explored to when AIDS took hold. In 1986, for what were to be his last self-portraits, Warhol turned his own face into a harrowing evocation of the endless struggle between life and death.
In America, the ruminative book of photographs and essays Warhol completed in 1985, the artist remarked: "I always thought I'd like my own tombstone to be blank. No epitaph, and no name. Well, actually, I'd like it to say 'figment.'" His comment is a great help to seeing and understanding the role of empty space in his "Death and Disaster" works. In many of the classic single-canvas pictures from the 1960s Warhol carefully left areas of the composition blank, drawing attention to the background on which his silkscreened figments were floating. Thus, in the electric chair painting Triple Silver Disaster (1963) he left more than two-thirds of the surface a haunting and beautiful expanse of "blank" silver paint. In the case of Mustard Race Riot Warhol took empty space to its formal extreme: one half of the diptych is wallpapered with photographic images, the other half is a stark monochrome. This conceit greatly increased the visual, conceptual, and poetic strengths of Mustard Race Riot. On the order Warhol submitted to his commercial supplier he had written a note about the way he wanted the silkscreens of the three Birmingham photographs to look: "Ple[a]se make contrasts very black & white." He had an intuitive sense about the kind of statement he would be making, and Mustard Race Riot is perhaps its ultimate expression: the grainy images of police brutality fill their space to chaotic excess, recalling, perhaps, a printing press that ran amok or a firmly bricked-up window; the blank pendant, on the other hand, stands as an impassive expression of elimination, absolution, and silent nothingness.
In the mid 1980s I worked with Warhol and his staff to purchase a large red Electric Chair painting for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He was eager to make a blank for this 1963 canvas, noting that he had originally wanted it to be a diptych. He said that the "blank" could by hung on either side of the silkscreened panel, it could by placed on a different wall in the same room, or the canvas with the electric chair images could be hung alone. Mustard Race Riot is that rare thing: a vintage diptych with its original "blank." In the broadest sense the two parts of the picture allude philosophically to an endless cycle in which troubles come and go.
Trevor Fairbrother's interview with Andy Warhol was published in Arts Magazine in February 1987. He organized the exhibition Beuys and Warhol: the artist as shaman and star for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1991. His essays on Warhol include one about the book America, written for Jonathan P. Binstock's exhibition catalogue Andy Warhol: Social Observer (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 2000).
) Trevor Fairbrother 2004
Property from a Private New York Collection