Youth and Violence in Jacob Lawrence’s “Soldiers and Students”

Witness Voices

Some people use art as an escape, others make a social statement. The works of art in the exhibition Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties are mostly of the latter. Although I wasn’t able to spend a lot of time at the exhibit (I will be returning to soak it in fully), one piece stood out to me. Painted by Jacob Lawrence in 1962, Soldiers and Students is a vibrantly colored work that shows one of the most terrifying experiences of the Civil Rights Movement.

Believed by curators and art historians to be painted about the desegregation of schools, and based on the 1957 integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, Soldiers and Students shows several young African American students being led by three larger figures (New Frontiers). Their intimidating demeanor and weapons indicate that they are armed guards, or soldiers. There is a group of protestors blocking the students’ entry into a school. The books in their arms suggest they are students eager to learn. Looking closely, a protester painted green holds a rock in his/her hand. At the top right of the painting, there is also a protestor holding an effigy of an African American in his/her hand. Effigies are small models of people usually made in order to be damaged or destroyed as a protest or expression of anger. It could have been used as a tactic to intimidate the Black students, as the use of effigies has occurred since the Civil Rights Movement. During the desegregation of Mansfield High School in 1956, after the Supreme Court Ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, protestors hung an African-American effigy to the flag pole and set it on fire (A History). Recently, in 2014, effigies were hung as if being lynched on the UC Berkeley campus (USA Today). This is a clear symbol of racism and the negative views held by many about desegregation.

Jacob Lawrence uses bright colors and partially filled in characters to further add to the intensity of the painting. These techniques help portray not only intensity, but also movement. He used large brush strokes and “cubic” nature of the people portrayed in many of his works. Lawrence was influenced by the Cubist painting tradition, which used broad brush strokes, strong lines, and abstract objects to present several viewpoints of the same subject matter (Rewald 2015). Lawrence paints the faces of these figures in a cubic style, simultaneously showing several different emotions, including sadness and fear.

Like many of the artists featured in Witness, Lawrence was a social activist, who used his work to portray the struggle of African-Americans throughout the 20th century (African American Registry). He is most famously known for his Great Migration series. The Great Migration was the movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North between World War I and World War II. This series contained more than 60 works of art, and Lawrence used a distinct technique throughout. He would paint only one color at a time First, all the red elements then the blue ones, and so on. He did this to ensure tonal consistency and balance.

In the year that Lawrence painted this work, 1962, the Ole Miss Riot took place. Segregationists were protesting the enrollment of James Meredith, a black US military veteran, at the University of Mississippi at Oxford, Mississippi. Two civilians were killed during the night, including a French journalist. Over 300 people were injured including one third of the US Marshals deployed (Sitton 1962). These types of protests were not uncommon as the desegregation movement took full force during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Especially terrifying, much of the violence and anger during this time, was directed towards young children attempting to go to school. This work and many others of its kind show the struggle of African-Americans as they fought for their right to equal education and to obtain other fundamental rights, guaranteed to them by the Constitution.

Geetika Rao is a third year Human Biology and Business Foundations major from Coppell, Texas. She is very involved at UT; working in a cancer research lab, as well as being a member of the 2016 Texas 4000 for Cancer team. She loves to play and watch sports and to read for fun. Her favorite work of art is The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali. She remembers it fondly from her high school Spanish classroom.

Works Cited

“A History of Racial Injustice.” A History of Racial Injustice. Equal Justice Initiative, 2014. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.

Effigies of Blacks Found Hanging by Nooses at UC Berkeley.” Voices from Campus. USA Today, 13 Dec. 2014. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.

“Explore Voting Rights with Your Students This Year.” New Frontiers 18 (2014): 7. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Web.

“Jacob Lawrence, An Artist of African American History and Heritage.” African American Registry. African American Registry, n.d. Web.

Rewald, Sabine. “Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.” Cubism. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.

Sitton, Claude. “3,000 Troops Put Down Mississippi Rioting And Seize 200 as Negro Attends Classes; Ex-Gen. Walker Is Held for Insurrection.” How Race Is Lived in America. The New York Times, 2000. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.

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