When we recall that traumatic year 1968, some events and places stand out.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gunned down in Memphis. Robert F. Kennedy killed in Los Angeles after an election win.
The Tet Offensive in Vietnam cast doubt on America's ability to win that war. In Prague, hopes for liberalization were crushed by Soviet tanks. In the streets and parks of Chicago, law enforcement clamped down on antiwar protesters at the Democratic National Convention in what became known as a police riot.
One event that probably does not spring immediately to mind, unless you were there, was the occupation of the city of Wilmington by the National Guard.
Troops were called in on April 8, 1968, in response to rioting that followed the King assassination. They stayed until Jan. 21, 1969 — the longest period of military rule in an American city since the Civil War.
>> READ MORE: Will Bunch on the occupation and its aftermath
The National Guard was called in to more than 120 U.S. cities in response to racial unrest during the 1960s and generally stayed for days or even hours. There seemed to be no good reason to keep the National Guard in Wilmington for more than nine months except that Delaware Gov. Charles Terry insisted on it. The occupation ended the day his successor was inaugurated.
Over the last several months, 20 organizations and institutions have worked together as Wilmington 1968 to commemorate and investigate the 50th anniversary of this dark chapter in the city's history. As part of it, the Delaware Art Museum commissioned the artist Hank Willis Thomas (born 1976) to create a set of works directly inspired by the occupation, which it is showing in conjunction with two exhibitions on the civil rights movement.
The Delaware Art Museum has had some success with hyper-local shows like this, notably a 2015 deep dive into the Wilmington arts scene of the 1970s. Unlike that show, which was deeply researched and filled with works that provided a real sense of an era, the three current shows — two of which have only a peripheral connection with the local events — feel like a mere gesture to mark this big anniversary. And though Thomas incorporates some materials from the time in his new work, we do not see any other art or graphics made in Wilmington in 1968 that reflect life in the occupied city.
Moreover, by situating the event entirely within the context of the civil rights movement, the trio of exhibitions ignores other strains of social upheaval from that pivotal year, from psychedelics to the antiwar movement, that threatened established norms and sometimes provoked disproportionate responses. The shows' focus is not specific enough to be memorable, and not broad enough to be meaningful. You will see some good photographs and drawings, but you will more than likely leave wondering what it was all about.
Thomas' Black Survival Guide, or How to Live Through a Police Riot, a sequence of 14 panels, is intended to demonstrate the difficulty of seeing what is right in front of you. Each panel consists of two images printed on retroreflective vinyl of the sort used on highway signs. The image visible to the naked eye shows a page from the mimeographed pamphlet named in the title, which was circulated in the area in 1968.
The words combine advice about dealing with disasters in general, and admonitions to the pamphlet's readers. "Because you are black this is important to you," one reads. "If you think they will not be after you, you are wrong."
The same panels contain images taken by several photographers from the Wilmington newspaper the News Journal showing scenes of the National Guardsmen interacting with local residents. In order to see these images, you need to look through special viewers — essentially clear eyeglasses with little headlights near the hinges. (There is something silly, very '60s and Jetson-ish about these glasses; they are perhaps the most engaging aspect of the show.)
As you look across each panel with your headlights on, the news photographs appear, but incomplete and with a certain ghostly quality. It's a great gimmick. But what is it supposed to mean?
The words of the pamphlet certainly express the simultaneous fear of and hunger for apocalypse that was evident at the time. But when we don the glasses to look past the words, we don't see any greater truth. Indeed, the photographs that become visible border on propaganda.
The first shows a fully armed soldier with a little girl standing nearby. It is exactly the kind of "keep calm and carry on" message one would expect in the daily newspaper in 1968. You could argue, I suppose, that the words about struggle, emergency, and violence gave way, in the end, to the bland repression depicted in the photographs.
The artist seems, however, to be suggesting that the National Guard's occupation amounted to the kind of police riot warned about in the pamphlet. It seems rather to have been the over-response of a governor seeking reelection by stoking suburbanites' fears that the unrest of the city would spread if left unchecked. Racist pandering is still part of our politics, and perhaps more of a threat than a police riot.
The two other shows deal with earlier and better-known events in the history of American race relations. "The Montgomery Bus Boycott: Drawings by Harvey Dinnerstein and Burton Silverman," consists of 30 works, mostly in pencil, by two friends who went to Alabama to document what proved to be a turning point in the civil rights movement.
The drawings depict many of the participants in the yearlong drama, including Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a bus, and a 26-year old King, first coming into the public eye. But the ones that show the boycotters, walking for miles to win their struggle for simple human dignity, have the greatest impact.
"Danny Lyon: Civil Rights" is a traveling show of photographs by a New York-born photographer who became involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee while he was a student at the University of Chicago and later became the organization's staff photographer. The 57 photographs, all from the early 1960s are, unlike many of the familiar and often-reprinted photos from that era, inside views of the movement.
A few were intended for use on posters, but most simply document organizing, demonstrating, getting arrested, and relaxing, the day-to-day life of a movement. They are well worth seeing.