Art + Social Justice: The Legacy of the Freedom Riders

Project Partner:
Polk Museum of Art, Inc.
Contract Period:
March 1, 2019 – March 1, 2020
Amount Awarded:
$5,000
Region Served:
Region 4 - East Central Florida
Categories

With the assistance of a $5,000 Community Project Grant from Florida Humanities, the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland, Florida hosted a two-part discussion series examining the socially conscious work of artist Charles Williams, one of whose series pays homage to the Freedom Riders of 1961. In courageous acts of dissent, the Freedom Riders were a group of black and white Civil Rights Activists who peacefully defied Jim Crow laws in segregated bus terminals by riding buses from Washington, D.C. to the Deep South. During their travels, the activists challenged other forms of segregation by using Whites-Only restrooms, waiting rooms, and lunch counters. The Freedom Riders faced horrific violence from White Southerners and police officers during their travels but ultimately gained international recognition for their brave feats in exposing the rampant racism in the United States. The overarching theme of the project was to explore and discuss the ways by which nonviolent acts of civil disobedience profoundly altered the course of American history and remain a powerful medium to affect social and political change.

On April 10, 2019, the Polk Museum of Art gathered members of the public and community leaders to attend an engaging panel discussion, during which clips from the PBS documentary Freedom Riders were screened and used as conversation starters for thoughtful audience dialogue. The panel was moderated by University of South Florida Professor of Southern History and renowned author Dr. Raymond Arsenault, and the panelists included artist Charles Williams and Freedom Riders and Civil Rights activists Dr. Bernard LaFayette Jr. and Kredelle Petway. Following the premiere event on April 10, the Polk Museum hosted a second program designed for a youth audience on April 12, 2019, with Dr. H. Alexander Rich and Charles Williams as the main presenters. The film screenings and panel discussions served as complementary humanities programming for the Polk Museum’s exhibition SUN + LIGHT exhibition featuring Williams’ recent work.

Drawing nearly 300 attendees from throughout the Central Florida community and beyond, including middle and high school students from underserved communities, the two free-admission discussion series sought to educate audiences about the historical context from which the Freedom Riders arose and the profound impact that the Freedom Riders had during the American Civil Rights movement. Through sharing jarring firsthand experiences from the Freedom Riders, ranging from arrests to intimidation, and through thoughtful input by the panelists, the experience offered attendees an inspirational and positive outlook for social justice and change in the United States.

Art and Social Justice: The Legacy of the Freedom Writers. Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College

Partner Spotlight

Partner:Polk Museum of Art, Inc.

Project Director: Dr. H. Alexander Rich, Executive Director and Chief Curator

About the Partner Organization: Drawing roughly 148,000 guests each year, the Polk Museum of Art’s mission is to enhance lives through inspirational and engaging art experiences. An important institution within the Lakeland community, the museum is instrumental in providing locals and visitors with increased opportunities to experience viewing Masterworks exhibitions, participate in arts/humanities academic programs and internships of excellence, and conduct meaningful art history research.

“The Freedom Riders series surpassed our wildest expectations. With the support of Florida Humanities, the Polk Museum was able to offer an emotional, moving, and once-in-a-lifetime experience for all who attended and participated. Nearly forty years after the first Freedom Rides, the ongoing fight for civil rights for all is as important as ever, and we could not have imagined a more timely, impactful, and unforgettable opportunity for audiences from throughout the community to reflect on the past and the future of the movement.”

“The Freedom Riders series surpassed our wildest expectations. With the support of Florida Humanities, the Polk Museum was able to offer an emotional, moving, and once-in-a-lifetime experience for all who attended and participated. Nearly forty years after the first Freedom Rides, the ongoing fight for civil rights for all is as important as ever, and we could not have imagined a more timely, impactful, and unforgettable opportunity for audiences from throughout the community to reflect on the past and the future of the movement.”