Exhibits document struggles for civil, women's rights
By Kurt Shaw
Published: Sunday, April 29, 2012, 12:30 a.m.
When a mild-mannered black seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a city bus in Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 1, 1955, her subsequent arrest was a catalyst for overturning the Jim Crow laws that divided this country in the mid-20th century.
Four days after Parks' arrest, the Montgomery Improvement Association was formed, electing a young minister, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as its president. Together, they urged 50,000 people to boycott Montgomery city buses, which eventually broke the city's ability to maintain segregated buses.
The event is well documented and the stuff of legend today. But what many people don't know is that Parks' act was an orchestrated event, rather than an impromptu decision.
"It was planned," says Cecile Shellman, the August Wilson Center's artistic director for art and exhibitions. "She was an activist at the time. ... She was a secretary for the local NAACP and the wife of Raymond Parks, a lifelong civil-rights activist. So, she wasn't just a random woman who was sitting on a bus."
If you want to know the rest of that story, and those of many other courageous people who contributed to the civil-rights and women's-rights movements both nationally and locally, there is no better place to find it at the moment than the August Wilson Center, Downtown. That's where the exhibit "Strength in the Struggle: Civil Rights" fleshes out the personal stories behind the fights for equal rights.
It's a two-part exhibit, comprised of the nationally touring Smithsonian Institution exhibit "381 Days: The Montgomery Bus Boycott Story," and the locally focused exhibit "Bridge Builders," which pays tribute to local black women who were involved in the women's movement in Pittsburgh beginning in the late 1960s through the 1980s.
The Smithsonian's "381 Days" exhibit includes six large panels of text and images that tell the stories behind the Montgomery bus boycott, which began on Dec. 5, 1955, and ended 381 days later, Dec. 20, 1956, after the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated busing unconstitutional.
The historic and relevant images include Rosa Parks' mug shot, an arrest photo of King taken in February 1956 and a photo of boycott organizers gathered in front of the Holt Street Baptist Church on the night of Dec. 5, 1955.
As the accompanying text details, Montgomery's black churches became the platform from which the boycott was launched and sustained: "Many boycott supporters were threatened with loss of their jobs and harassed by the local government. Conspiracy charges, based on state anti-boycott law, were brought against 98 boycott leaders, including Parks and King. Throughout the boycott, the church was an oasis that offered renewed strength and commitment."
The panels are augmented with a 30-minute video, "Voices of the Civil Rights Movement." In it, more than two-dozen people give eyewitness testimony to related events, in effect bringing history to life through their oral accounts.
Video also helps to enliven the second half of the exhibit, "Bridge Builders."
This part of the exhibit highlights three particular initiatives that occurred in Western Pennsylvania: the integration of female minorities into the Pittsburgh police force; the founding the East End chapter of the National Organization for Women; and the creation of an "Ad Hoc Committee to Counter the Klan."
Most intriguing is an untitled eight-minute video that documentary photographer Dino DiStefano and videographer Mia Boccella Hartle created just for this exhibit in which three female Pittsburgh Police officers -- Brenda Tate, Maurita Bryant and Ophelia "Cookie" Coleman -- give their accounts of the early days of integration as black female police officers in the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police.
Up until 1975, when a class action lawsuit against the city of Pittsburgh resulted in the Pittsburgh police department's adopting an affirmative-action plan, minority women weren't allowed on the force.
And perhaps even more profound, the public at large didn't welcome them either. In the video, Bryant details an account of one call in which she met with a victim who said, "I called the police. I want the real police."
"It's very humbling," Shellman says of the video. "It talks about racism and sexism. These women weren't allowed to do their jobs, initially. They experienced a lot of resistance from the older white males on the force."
In addition to photographs of the officers, the "Bridge Builders" exhibit includes a number of photographs of community activists associated with the founding the East End Chapter of NOW, such as Alma Speed Fox, former executive director of the NAACP Pittsburgh and longtime champion of racial and gender equality.
Founded in 1976, the bylaws of the East End chapter of NOW called for black and white co-presidents and members to work together to address a variety of feminist issues on both local and national levels. A number of buttons on display reflect that involvement, along with a massive banner that reads, "Take a Stand Against the Klan."
Created in 1980 for a rally in Uniontown, Fayette County, by the Ad Hoc Committee to Counter the Klan, "It represents another strong and courageous activity by area women," Shellman says.
Several news clippings and photographs beneath the banner detail how the Pennsylvania NOW Committee on Racism and the YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh created this regional coalition -- the Ad Hoc Committee to Counter the Klan -- to counter the resurgence of Ku Klux Klan activity in the region between 1980 and 1989.
Shellman says that, though the overriding theme of the exhibit tackles larger civil rights issues, what's unique about the "Bridge Builders" portion is that "it's about African American women who have made a difference in Pittsburgh's struggle for equality."
'Strength in the Struggle: Civil Rights'
When: Through June 30. Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays
Admission: $8; $4 for senior citizens and students (with ID); $3 for children.
Where: August Wilson Center, 980 Liberty Ave., Downtown
Details: 412-258-2700 or www.augustwilsoncenter.org
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