The use of artistic expression and civic involvement may be one of the most central, and yet overlooked, ways to prompt discussion and transformation today. People use art to bolster their contemporary movements and missions, from Black Lives Matter protesters to feminists subversives working behind the Iron Curtain. The effectiveness of these strategies has been substantiated, as representation and support for Black artists and discussions of restitution have grown exponentially during the pandemic. The possibilities for art and activism are endless, and a March 7th lecture “Arts Meets Activism: John Lewis, C.T Vivian, and The Baptism,” reiterated the power of this relationship.

The event, hosted by Emory, the True Colors Theatre Company and the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection, featured a panel of experts who discussed the poem “The Baptism” by Carl Hancock Rux. The discussion commemorated the anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the legacies of late civil rights icons John Lewis and C.T Vivian, underscoring the idea that art can promote social change. The three panelists were Associate Professor of Political Science Andra Gillespie, civil rights activist Doris A. Derby and Associate Professor of English at Morehouse College (Ga.) Francine L. Allen Adams. 

Moderator Vicki Crawford, Carl Hancock Rux and panelists Andra Gillespie, Doris A. Derby, and Francine L. Allen Adams examine ‘The Baptism.’ (The Emory Wheel/Zimra Chickering)

The event began with a film screening of “The Baptism,” a visual poem commissioned by the Lincoln Center and created by Rux. The short film was a poetic offering; a reading paired with a soft orchestral soundtrack and a selection of videos of the natural world. I could have listened to Rux’s discussion of his work for hours simply because of the sonorous, profound nature of Rux’s voice. Once “The Baptism” began to play, however, I was just as moved by the film as I was by the depth of Rux’s own voice. 

Rux’s utilization of concepts of regenerative, constantly expanding architecture to address ideas of ongoing life in his poem showed an unusual approach to describing the legacy of icons of Black history like Lewis and Vivian.

“Think of these two men as one building,” Rux said in “The Baptism.” “No building is wasted. … Remember them well because they are over and over and never die.”

Comparing the two activists to the permanence of buildings, Rux revealed a perspective on legacy to make us aware of the immortal impact of the dead which remains for us to build upon. 

The first of the three panelists to respond to the poem was Adams, noting that both Vivian and Lewis experienced a sort of baptism, as they were beaten by police, plunged into suffering and resurrected in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Emerging from suffering into resurrection allowed the activists to create legacies, or “buildings,” if we are to follow Rux’s poetic analogy. We must dwell in these buildings of activism and continue to build upon them ourselves, using the foundation of activism to fight for equality in our own world.

“Art is so important to understanding and delving deeper into social justice,” Adams said.

Derby said that art engages community members in ways that otherwise would not occur, and this can slowly begin to immerse people in the political side of activism. Art is thus an effective gateway to the political. It is crucial to the struggle for equal rights, and Rux’s artwork exemplifies that significance. 

Ultimately, the three panelists at the event — as well as Rux, True Colors Artistic Director Jamil Jude and Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection’s Executive Director and moderator Vicki Crawford — all took the responsibility of remembering legacy through art very seriously. Despite their varying ages and levels of expertise, all panelists embraced their role and offered their talents and thoughts about the significance of art and activism. This diverse group of event contributors, which included an American Sign Language interpreter, promoted accessibility, further highlighting how both artistic and activist pursuits are readily available for all people to engage.

As Rux’s poem states, “nothing ever really dies,” and so the great legacies of Lewis and Vivian have never died; instead, they are preserved and sustained in the diverse art and activism that the next generations of passionate youths take part in.