Enslaved black people found strength in music, singing spirituals to foster hope and spread messages in the face of unimaginable injustice. Generations later, music mobilized protest and perseverance during the Civil Rights Movement and later periods of social activism.
“[Activists] sing the freedom songs today for the same reason the slave sang them,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in 1964, “because we too are in bondage and the songs add hope to our determination that ‘We shall overcome.’” From James Brown’s Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud to Public Enemy’s Fight the Power, music has long shaped calls for equality and racial justice.
Visual art and literature have also inspired new understandings of past and present injustice. Through 60 captioned paintings, Jacob Lawrence’s 1940-1941 Migration Series depicts the journey of African Americans fleeing Southern racism and terror for the North. Sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett, born the granddaughter of emancipated people in 1915, is today considered “the foremost African American woman artist of her generation” for her art on themes of social justice and black womanhood.
Before his death in 2005, playwright August Wilson spent the bulk of his life dramatizing the black experience in 10 powerful plays set in different decades of the 20th century. And the incomparable work of Toni Morrison emphasized the oft-denied but undeniable fact of black humanity through literary explorations of enslavement, social marginalization, and the persistence of love. Her immortal words grace the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, among many whose work advances the arts’ long fight for justice.