Tucked Away Behind a Macy’s Bed Display, a Lesson in Civil Rights History

Black History Month lives on at the Museum of African American Art in Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza

In 1962, protesters gathered in Gardena to take a stand against a developer who refused to sell a home to a black teacher. That same year, Ronald Stokes, a 29-year-old black Muslim man, was killed when LAPD shot several unarmed people at Muslim Temple 27; Malcolm X was among his pallbearers. Meanwhile, at Baldwin Hills Elementary School, black students were barred from entry.

Los Angeles’ ties to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s go beyond the 1965 Watts Rebellion, but often escape mainstream narratives. Right now, though, a small museum tucked behind the mattress display inside the Macy’s at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, is shedding light on this history.

The photo exhibit The Civil Rights Movement: Los Angeles to Selma, which runs at the Museum of African American Art through March 25, gives an overview of local Civil Rights events and draws connections to the movement in the southeastern United States. In some instances, the actions displayed in the archival images on the walls are directly related. In a photo by Jack Davis, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and fellow Civil Rights leader Rev. Dr. Ralph David Abernathy are seen with Sammy Davis Jr. at the 1963 Rally for Freedom in Los Angeles. The event itself was held in solidarity with the movement in the South and the exhibit card notes that it was the largest civil rights gathering in the U.S. at that time. There are photos of celebrated artists and activists, like Harry Belafonte and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, as well as of of people who weren’t famous, but who took a stand against racism.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Maurice Dawkins peacefully picket outside a Woolworth store in Los Angeles. Rev. Maurice Dawkins, chairman of the California Christian Leadership Conference, and the participants marched in support of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). SNCC and SCLC spearheaded the national “sit-in” movement at dime store lunch counters. July 9, 1960.

Photograph by Guy Crowder/courtesy Tom & Ethel Bradley Center

“Most people do not know how significant Los Angeles was to the Civil Rights movement,” says Keith Rice, Historian at Cal State University Northridge’s Tom and Ethel Bradley Center and co-curator of The Civil Rights Movement.

Many of the photos in the exhibition are part of a massive archive of images documenting communities of color at California State University’s Tom and Ethel Bradley Center. Portions of the show were previously part of the 2015 exhibition African American Civil Rights Movement Los Angeles at the Museum of Social Justice. Where that show focused on local leaders in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, the Museum of African American Art exhibit is more generalized and also features a few photographs from Selma taken by photographer John Kouns, whose work recently made it into the Bradley Center’s archive.

The show is also part of the museum’s greater efforts to help educate students on the nationwide Civil Rights Movement of the era.

“[Students] get Martin Luther King Day off, but they don’t know why,” says Berlinda Fontenot-Jamerson, board president and executive director of operations for the Museum of African American Art.

MAAA was founded 42 years ago and has spent most of its existence in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. It is home to a substantial collection of work by Palmer C. Hayden, a prominent painter during the Harlem Renaissance, as well as other African American artists. The museum is also a field trip destination and The Civil Rights Movement exhibition was planned in part to coincide with educational programming at the museum. MAAA recently worked with the Gateway Education Foundation and Los Angeles Unified School District’s Arts Education Branch for “Passing The Torch to America’s Youth,” a program that brought together students with Civil Rights leaders from the southern United States for a workshop on February 22. The following night, the museum held a reception and talk with the leaders on the history of movement and non-violent resistance.

One of L.A.’s contributions to the Civil Rights Movement was financial assistance. Rice explains that Los Angeles was a destination for fundraising, with both Hollywood icons and local church groups pitching in to aid protesters who faced arrest in southern cities.

But Los Angeles also has its own history of racism and inequality, and Angelenos of color were certainly fighting for their own rights as well. The exhibition shows this through photos from various local protests as well as through documentation of racist acts within the city. The photo of a Confederate flag flying in front of a house isn’t from the South, but from USC’s Kappa Alpha fraternity house in 1965. Another photo reveals a “Mason-Dixon line” drawn on the street front of the home.

Black Panther Party spokeswoman Joan Kelley addresses a crowd of over 6,000 blacks and their sympathizers. The coalition of protestors gathered at city hall to protest the December 8, 1969 pre-dawn raid conducted by the LAPD’s new paramilitary Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team and over 300 police officers on the Black Panther Party Headquarters on 41st and Central Ave. On December 4, 1969 Fred Hampton, deputy chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, had been shot to death at point-blank range while he was sleeping, during a raid by the Chicago Police Department. Miraculously, the four-hour standoff ended in Los Angeles without any fatalities. December 18, 1969.

Photograph by Charles Williams/courtesy Tom & Ethel Bradley Center

Rice points to some of the city’s issues when it comes to reckoning with its own history. “If people were to know all the injustices that occurred here, it would tarnish the image of Hollywood and constant sunshine and everything beautiful all the time,” he says. “This city has had a history of discrimination and segregation, not only against African Americans, but people of Jewish descent, [and] people, of course, of Latino descent.”

But L.A. isn’t unique in its tendency to obscure the complex, unpleasant aspects of its history. According to Rice, it’s just one example of “the silencing of American history.” Exhibits like this one are giving the past a voice.

The Civil Rights Movement: Los Angeles to Selma, the Museum of African American Art, Macy’s third floor, 4005 Crenshaw Blvd., Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw; through March 25.

RELATED: Selma Director Ava DuVernay on the Myth of Martin Luther King Jr. 

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