Then and Now: Arts Practice and the Civic Rights Movement
As the nation commemorates the 1963 March on Washington, Americans will be reminded of the power the arts bring to movements for human rights. The music and singing that day played a critical role in inspiring, mobilizing, and giving voice to the civil rights movement. ‘‘The freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle,’’ said Martin Luther King, Jr. ‘‘they give the people new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope, in the future, particularly in our most trying hours’’. 
Theater also played a critical role. The Free Southern Theater (FST), was formed in 1963, same year as the March on Washington, to be a cultural arm of the Civil Rights Movement—“a theater for those who have no theater.” The FST “used art to support the Civil Rights Movement through a professional touring company, a community engagement program and training opportunities for local people interested in writing, performing and producing theater.” The FST was a major influence in the Black Theatre Movement, using theater "as an instrument to stimulate the development of critical and reflective thought among Black people in the South." FST Artistic Director, John O’Neal, was a co-founder and a guiding force throughout the organization’s existence. Americans for the Arts has been privileged to learn from and support John O’Neal and Junebug Productions as part of our Animating Democracy Lab for the Color Line Project.
Junebug Productions is hosting a historic four-day event planned for October 17-20, 2013 in New Orleans. Talkin’ Revolution is a gathering of artists, activists, and educators coming together to celebrate and honor the 50-year legacy of Free Southern Theater as carried forward by Junebug Productions and others. The program includes performances, presentations and panel discussions to reflect on the historic and present-day impact of Free Southern Theater. (Registration is now open, and for more information please email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
John O’Neal’s contributions continue. I recently shared the Story Circle process, a technique for democratic group participation that I first learned from John O’Neal, at a workshop in Fort Lauderdale sponsored by the Broward County Cultural Division. We shared honest and revealing stories of times in our lives where a perception had been a misperception. Things got real -- real quick! Within an hour the degree of connection among participants had grown exponentially. Just after the workshop, Marie Berlin Segre shared the process with her staff at the Young At Art Museum. “It really helped bridge a divide between new and current staff. We are excited to see what the short and long terms results will result from ‘sharing a story and getting a story’ in Northwest Gardens community this Saturday,” said Marie. And so the Story Circle process marches on.
Thanks to John and others, the Story Circle process has become a popular method for opening communications channels within communities and cultural organizations over the last fifty years -- in ways that produce meaning, connection, and value. The democratic process, passed on from an arts practice vital to the civil rights movement, continues to drive conversations of value. It is a lasting legacy that is still being passed on today.
 the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute