Civil Rights Era Highlighted at BYU Museum Of Art

Dec 22, 2015

Two exhibitions at the BYU Museum of Art show perspectives on a critical component of American history:  racial integration. One of the exhibitions is by widely beloved illustrative painter Norman Rockwell, and the other is by photographer Herman Leonard.

Years before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, the United States government produced propagandistic tours with jazz musicians, sending them around the world to promote American ideals during the Cold War. But for American musicians of color, this mission was more complicated.

“A lot of these jazz musicians are African-American and are facing a lot of issues on the home front, so there was a lot of conflict here.  There were times when people like Louis Armstrong canceled his European tour, [saying] I cannot go out and be this ambassador for the United States government, claiming that we’re helping showcase freedom when my people don’t even experience freedom in their own country,” said Kalisha Grimsman, an educator at the BYU art museum. 


“Louis Armstrong canceled his tour to Moscow in 1957 because President Eisenhower refused to send troops into Little Rock, Arkansas to enforce school integration laws, and Louis Armstrong famously said, ‘The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell. It’s getting so bad, a colored man hasn’t got any country,'” Grimsman said.

The exhibition of Leonard’s black-and-white photographs shows many of the musicians who traveled as ambassadors for the United States as they showcased American jazz in dark and smoky venues internationally.

Credit Herman Leonard, Armstrong, Louis, Paris, 1960. Louis Armstrong, ©Herman Leonard Photography LLC /

Next to the photos is an exhibition of Rockwell’s paintings, including one that illustrates Ruby Bridges, an African-American child being escorted into school by US Marshalls as she walks past racist graffiti and ignores the tomatoes that are being thrown at her.

Kylie Brooks, who works at the museum, finds it interesting to view related historical events, as shown by two talented American artists.

“…It’s fun to be able to go to these two different exhibitions and see concurrent events presented very differently, but still talking about the same themes of freedom,” Brooks said.

The Rockwell and Leonard exhibitions will be on view until February and March of 2016.

Music: Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday