“I am convinced that, for practical as well as moral reasons, nonviolence offers the only road to freedom for my people,” Martin Luther King Jr. said, in his now-famous October 1966 Ebony article, “The Only Road to Freedom.”
“Our most powerful nonviolent weapon is, as would be expected,” he adds later in the essay, “also our most demanding, that is organization. To produce change, people must be organized to work together.”
After a year of racial strife, King’s words ring as true as ever. And that hasn’t been lost on Charlie Johnson, a professor of elementary education at Southern University at New Orleans. As the president of the National Conference of Artists New Orleans Chapter, Johnson is hosting the Martin Luther King Jr. commemorative art exhibit, a yearly event at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, opening Saturday.
Performing, visual and literary art had an important role in the Civil Rights Movement, Johnson pointed out, and art continues to be a tool for organizers today.
“Individuals had to express their views and their desires,” Johnson said, “and that was one of the major motivators … those individuals who sacrificed and are currently sacrificing because there’s still a lot in the world that we have to fix.
“The artists in many cases were overlooked. This is a way of saying, ‘Hey look, we have messages that are valid and we have messages that have carried on the mission of those who were seeking equality.’”
Johnson has curated the exhibit for the past 17 years, excluding only 2006 after Hurricane Katrina. With the help of other members of the National Conference of Artists New Orleans, Johnson settled on a focus for the year’s show.
“Every year our organization, our chapter, chooses a theme,” Johnson said. “The members get together; we look at all the possibilities; we have a discussion, and then we vote on what we want to be the theme for a particular year.”
This year’s theme is “Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom.”
“We didn’t know we would have all of the unrest that happened,” Johnson said, “the case in Ferguson, New York City, the bombings, police killings and all that. But it’s very similar to what happened in 1966 when we were having riots in the city and protests and violence — white on black violence, black on white violence and black on black violence — which King talks about in that particular speech. It’s just so timely that the same things are happening right now.”
The exhibit will focus on local artists this year. It will open up to national artists and other NCA chapters next year.
One of the artists featured in this year’s exhibition is Rickey Henry, a former student of Johnson’s. His piece, an oil painting titled “Are We Free?” depicts a black man in chains crying out as he holds a pair of sneakers in his hands, which Johnson finds invites a discussion about morality versus materialism.
“It’s a cry to young people to wake up and look at what’s happening in the world,” he said. “Don’t be caught up in your little small circles.”
Other exhibiting artists include Elise Ballard-Russell. Ed Brown, Amy Bryan, Susan Charles, L’Tania Clark, Addie Dawson-Euba, Rickey Henry, Charlie Johnson, Louise Mouton Johnson, Henry Jones, Richard Keller, Celi Pedescleaux, Sheila Phipps, Alma Bryan Powell, and Shakor.