Anthony Faramelli visits the Human Rights Human Wrongs exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery and asks, how far exactly we have come in the ongoing struggle for racial equality?
Image: Charles Moore, Birmingham, Alabama, United States of America, May 3 1963, The Black Star Collection, Ryerson Image Centre
February 2015 marked a monumental anniversary in the history of human rights, in particular the American Civil Rights Movement and the global struggle for racial equality. Fifty years ago saw both the assassination of Malcolm X as well as the historic voting rights protests in Selma, Alabama. While Malcolm X supported universal voting rights, he also maintained a deep scepticism towards voting in a corrupt and racist system having any real ability to effect transformation, and instead advocated change by “any means necessary”, if and when voting failed. This stood in stark contrast to the ideology driving the Selma protests, which relied on the belief that full participation in representative democracy was the only road to full equality. It is the tension that exists between these polemic positions that drives the two events marking this anniversary, the “Human Rights Human Wrongs” exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery and the release of Ava DuVernay’s movie about Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, Selma.
Taking the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), particularly Article Six, “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law,” as its point of departure, “Human Rights Human Wrongs” consists of over 250 images from the Black Star Collection documenting the political upheavals that have largely framed global human rights debates. Bookended by the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide, the exhibition begins by contextualising the debates through a juxtaposition of images documenting the horrors of colonialism, segregation and genocide, linking these singular images to the infamous photos of the Holocaust published in LIFE magazine on 7 May 1945, the same images displayed at the historic San Francisco security conference where the United Nations Charter was drafted.
As the exhibition’s curator, Mark Sealy, noted in an essay he wrote to accompany the exhibition, the end of World War II marked the beginning of both the movement to de-colonisation as well as the American Civil Rights Movement. The horrors of the Nazi regime generated an unprecedented political will to guarantee the protection of human rights and to prevent future atrocities of that magnitude. For the African-American and colonial soldiers returning to a subaltern position at home after fighting fascism in Europe, the political urgency to guarantee universal human rights was especially sharp. Many viewed the formation of the U.N. and the subsequent Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the global opportunity to move beyond the morally bankrupt racism, exploitation and oppression perpetuated by Europe and America. This was well-articulated by key anti-colonial leaders and intellectuals such as Léopold Sédar Senghor, the Senegalese poet, statesman, resistance fighter, socialist, and influential theorist of Négritude, and Frantz Fanon, the doctor, psychiatrist, political philosopher, author and anti-colonial resistance fighter whose work largely inaugurated the field of postcolonial theory.
“When looking at the images included in Human Rights Human Wrongs it’s easy to think of these issues as “happening over there.” However, it’s important to remember that 1948 also marks the beginning of Windrush, the mass immigration to the U.K. from the British colonies.”
The Allied forces’ message was that they were fighting for universal freedoms. This created a tension with the European and American contradictory positions to maintain their colonial empires and segregation, while espousing the liberal humanist values of the U.N. and the UDHR. “Human Rights Human Wrongs” is most explicit in expositing this obvious contradiction through its inclusion of a segment of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” given just one day before he was assassinated. In the segment, Luther King bluntly exclaims, ‘All we say to America is be true to what you say on paper.’ At the time, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Martin Luther King’s civil rights organisation, was solely focused on realising Article Six of the UDHR by having legislation passed to ensure full legal personhood, including ending segregation and guaranteeing the rights to vote, work, and own property. This is the issue highlighted in the movie Selma.
Selma follows the series of protests led by Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC in Selma, Alabama in March 1965, that resulted in President Johnson passing The Voting Rights Act, granting universal voting rights to all U.S. citizens, regardless of race. While the movie certainly takes dramatic license, it nevertheless faithfully illustrates the driving forces behind the SCLC, as well as most other human rights movements, and their absolute reliance on European humanism.
Humanism is the philosophic position that emphasises the value and agency of human beings. The philosophy focuses on the assumed scientific and rational set of assumptions that situates “man” as unique in the history of the world, and seeks to secure its domination through a rational system of governance and legislation. In its most idealist iterations, humanism gave birth to the utopian thinking that drove the American and French revolutions, democracy, capitalism and communism (insofar as both ideologies purport a scientific and egalitarian means to order societies), and the United Nations. In this way the UDHR, the de-colonisation movements, and the Civil Rights Movement seemed finally to deliver the Enlightenment’s promise of universal equality and freedom. In fact Selma leaves the viewer with the uncomplicated certainty that justice was finally done when the Voting Rights Act was signed into law.
The problem is that the story does not end with the SCLC victory in 1965. I have written elsewhere how, in the U.S., it is impossible to supress the continuing racial drama that increasingly results in the “lawful” killings of people of colour. While the commonly used figure from the MXGM study, that in the U.S. every twenty-eight hours a black person is killed by a police officer, security guard or vigilante has been contested, there can be little doubt that the rate of lawful killings of black and brown people, predominately male and often unarmed, at the hands of the police remains a persistent problem in the U.S. This has been made poignantly clear in the last few weeks with the publication of the Department of Justice’s Ferguson Report that follows a summer of violent race protests after a young unarmed black man was killed by a white police officer. In fact even The Voting Rights Act has been recently repealed, opening the door to new racist, prohibitive voting ID laws.
America is not unique in its continued failure to fully guarantee universal human rights. The urgency driving most postcolonial work is the continued exploitation of the former colonies by other means, what is commonly referred to as neo-colonialism. To take Algeria as an illustrative example, the veteran of the Algerian War for independence, Marie-Aimée Helie-Lucas’ essay, “Women, Nationalism, and Religion in the Algerian Liberation Struggle” in Rethinking Fanon. This writing documents how post-colonial Algeria has been marked by the problems of unequal gender relationships, religious fundamentalism and neo-colonial exploitation – a place where instead, crony capitalism and illiberal dictatorships have flourished.
Human Rights Human Wrongs Exhibition Installation, 2015 © Kate Elliott