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Artist collaborations with social justice organizations propel change

In 1971, soul singer Marvin Gaye released a plaintive, riveting song called “What’s Going On” on an album of the same name.

The album was unlike any Gaye had ever recorded. The title song made a plea for love and understanding as it rebuked the nation’s leaders for the deep problems still plaguing the U.S. nearly two decades after the Civil Rights Movement began.

Institutional racism, disenfranchisement and police violence against people of color remained entrenched, and tens of thousands of Americans were dying in the Vietnam War, catalyzing widespread social unrest. “What’s Going On” captured progressive Americans’ frustration and weariness with the racial oppression and brutality of the times.

By the time Gaye recorded the song, the Civil Rights Movement had already energized artists across the creative spectrum and produced an extraordinarily fertile collaboration between them and civil rights organizations. Visual and musical artists, actors, filmmakers, poets and writers – working both independently and in collaboration – played a major role in advancing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“Some poems, like many of the great verses in the Bible, can make people think about changing all mankind, even the whole world. Poems, like prayers, possess power,” poet Langston Hughes wrote in a foreword to the 1966 student poetry anthology “Freedom School Poetry.” Established by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi, Freedom Schools were intended to empower the state’s Black youth politically through art and cultural education.

The anthology was dedicated to the memory of Emmett Till.

These books, songs, poems and other artistic expressions have effectively advanced the cause of civil rights and racial justice. That’s why conservative efforts to ban such creative ventures from schools and libraries are troubling, advocates for the free expression of ideas say.

This year’s Banned Books Week, recognized from Oct. 1-7, reminds us that literary and visual artists are among the casualties of today’s conservative tide of censorship targeting school curricula and libraries.

• READ: Banned Books Week: Titles most challenged in schools and libraries

Banned Books Week “highlights the value of free and open access to information and brings together the entire book community – librarians, educators, authors, publishers, booksellers, and readers of all types – in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas,” organizers of Banned Books Week state on their website.

“Let Freedom Read” is this year’s theme.

“People who are afraid of the power of art, music and books have always existed, and they have always failed to censor or ban art completely – because artists and activists understand the power of reaching audiences and touching their hearts,” said Southern Poverty Law Center President and CEO Margaret Huang. “We will always find ways to overcome these pathetic efforts to control creativity and imagination.”

‘Art Works’

As the SPLC expands its collaboration with community artists in its five focus states (one such project is with Montgomery, Alabama-based artist and activist Michelle Browder for the SPLC’s future Atlanta office), the author of a new book poses the question: Are innovative approaches that closely partner with artists critical for social justice successes?

Art Works by Ken Grossinger
Labor organizer Ken Grossinger is the author of “Art Works: How Organizers and Artists Are Creating a Better World Together.” (Credit: The New Press)

The answer is “yes,” according to Ken Grossinger’s Art Works: How Organizers and Artists Are Creating a Better World Together.

Grossinger, a noted labor organizer married to painter Micheline Klagsbrun, who worked with him on the book, writes that for social justice gains to be permanent, artists and social organizations must strategically collaborate at the formative stage of campaign planning, not as an afterthought to “decorate” an initiative.

“We know through community and labor organizing, protest movements and lobbying that we can achieve policy and legislative victories, but those wins are often temporary and then rolled back when power changes hands from one party to another,” Grossinger said in an interview.

“The political pendulum keeps swinging from left to right and back again because we fail to address the narratives underlying these fights. For longstanding change, we need not only to change political hands but the values and attitudes of the electorate. Art and storytelling help us to change the narrative and get us part of the way there.”

In the new book, Grossinger cites the powerful influence of socially conscious musical artists including Harry Belafonte, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, whose gut-wrenching, 1939 song about lynching, “Strange Fruit,” has been called “a declaration of war … the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.”

He describes how musicians performed at voter registration rallies in cotton fields, and he highlights the art programs established by SNCC, including a theater company, press and photography departments and comic books, to teach politics in communities of color. The photographs taken for SNCC by a young photojournalist named Danny Lyon exposed segregation and police brutality and powerfully resonate 60 years later.

Bridging art and social justice

Grossinger gives respect to mural artists and musicians like Jasiri X, Usher and Jay-Z who reached the hearts and minds of Black Lives Matter supporters and Americans enraged over the murders of Black men such as Trayvon Martin and George Floyd. He cites successful collaborations between artists and migrant, immigrant and refugee justice groups, as well as with national environmental justice organizations, which, he writes, were “slow to adopt art as a pathway to reach a broader audience and deepen their campaigns.” And he describes recent advances in technology, digital projection and social media that can reach more people.

Arts community organizer Kalonji Gilchrist, who partners with the SPLC in Montgomery, Alabama, credited hip-hop artists like KRS-One, Goodie Mob and Public Enemy – with its 1991 song “By the Time I Get to Arizona” – for his “first introduction to activism and politics” at around age 15. “They helped influence what and who I am today,” he said.

In late August, Gilchrist’s 21 Dreams Art & Culture and the SPLC’s Civil Rights Memorial Center (CRMC) collaborated for an “Art Is Activism” block party. The event featured music and about 25 local artists, poets and social justice organizations to raise community awareness of issues such as voting, civic engagement, wellness, violence and the reintegration of returning citizens into their communities. Event partners included Alabama Appleseed, Alabama Forever, Alabama Forward, Michelle Browder and The NewSouth Bookstore.

“We wanted to bridge art and culture with social justice,” said Tafeni English-Relf, director of the SPLC’s Alabama state office.

SPLC Chief Program Officer Ann Beeson, who was a longtime leader in art and social change initiatives prior to joining the SPLC, believes that bridge is a natural one for the organization.

“SPLC recognizes that building a multi-racial, inclusive democracy in the current hostile climate will require innovation and radical imagination,” Beeson said. “Artists are natural innovators and there is real alignment between building capacity for social justice innovation and deepening our collaboration with artists and cultural leaders.”

Painting of a protest
“Outcry,” a 2023 painting by Montgomery, Alabama-based artist Curbie Toles, was among several of Toles' works exhibited during an “Art Is Activism” block party in August. (Courtesy of Curbie Toles)

‘Control the media’

Grossinger told the SPLC that there are certain prerequisites for the collaboration between artists and cultural leaders to succeed.

First, there must be an upfront understanding that details what the artists and organizers can expect from each other.

Second, parties must agree to a timeline for the collaboration. “Organizers want things done today or tomorrow, and artists don’t work that way,” he said, describing a point of possible contention.

“Organizers tend to think in terms of poll-tested messaging, the quantitative impact of a campaign, like, ‘How many doors have I knocked on today,’ and also urgency, whereas artists think more qualitatively,” Grossinger said. “Artists don’t want their creative impulses stifled. That’s why the understanding up front is so important.”

Gilchrist is excited that technological advancements in the arts will transform stories of social injustice into powerful experiences that will move the public in new, dramatic ways.

He recently beta-tested civil rights, virtual reality museum software in artificial intelligence glasses that thrust him back in time to a segregated lunch counter. The effect was so realistic that Gilchrist had to cut the test short. The interactive software was developed by Lobaki, a Jackson, Mississippi-based company in partnership with Air University and MGMWERX, an innovation hub in Montgomery.

“They were real enough to get my heart racing,” Gilchrist said. “I was looking at the white people next to me yelling at me, causing me anxiety and fear. It was a lot! I had to take off the glasses. I told the software program representatives and MGMWERX staff that I needed a moment. I had been forced to sit at the counter and be helpless while they were yelling, ‘Get up. Get out of here, [N-word].’ They were taunting us to move. The people were white and mostly young. I remember their faces.”

From the lunch counter to today’s school board meeting room, the battleground over equality and freedom and who has the last word on what the nation should look like and think continues.

Censorship, Gilchrist said, “is an attack.”

“It’s fear-driven, and not good fear or a fear that protects you from harm, but fear out of losing control, or facing things that make some white people feel uncomfortable. Censorship of the arts targets artists representing marginalized communities. These are the voices that are being silenced – the BIPOC, immigrant, and LGBTIA+ communities. That tells us a lot. One could certainly argue that these acts of censorship are tools of white supremacy. Control the media, the information, control the people.”

Photo at top: At the Southern Poverty Law Center's offices in Montgomery, Alabama, arts community organizer Kalonji Gilchrist stands in front of a mural completed by a group of young artists. (Credit: Cierra Brinson)