Exhibit shines light on San Francisco civil rights movement

A new museum exhibit created by an SF State lecturer highlights the civil rights movement that took place in the Bay Area in the early 1960s, including the role students and faculty played in the struggle.

A photo of a civil rights demonstration in San Francisco in 1964.

The Occupation! exhibit includes photos by former SF State professor Phiz Mezey of San Francisco civil rights demonstrations, such as this one at a Chrysler dealership in 1964. Credit: Phiz Mezey.

"Occupation! Economic Justice as a Civic Right in San Francisco 1963-1964" draws upon the University's Labor Archives and Research Center, University Archives, and Bay Area Television Archive, as well as the San Francisco Public Library and photos from former SF State Professor Phiz Mezey to illustrate the battles in San Francisco against unequal pay, housing discrimination and other economic injustices. The exhibit, curated by museum studies Lecturer Nancy Arms Simon, is on display in the Special Collections Gallery in the J. Paul Leonard Library through Feb. 15.

"People assume the civil rights movement took place just in the South, but this exhibit shows that civil rights struggles took place all over the country," said Catherine Powell, director of the Labor Archives and Research Center.

Arms Simon developed the concept for Occupation! as her master's thesis while a student at SF State, when Powell was looking for a project on which she could work with the San Francisco Public Library.

The exhibit utilizes photos, news footage and other items to document civil rights struggles such as sit-ins protesting discriminatory hiring practices. Some of the photos were taken by Mezey, an SF State faculty member who was fired in 1950 after refusing to sign a loyalty oath to the United States.

Museum studies students helped Arms Simon install the exhibit at SF State, and Arms Simon made sure they were actively involved in the process. One student, for example, was interested in protest music and, on her own initiative, created a display case about sit-in songs.

"I wanted to make sure students had a chance to provide their input," Arms Simon said. "I wanted them to flesh out the idea and pull in the other archives."

To connect the struggles and student-activism of the past with the present day, students suggested displaying photographs from last year's Occupy Wall Street movement. The students also placed a table near the gallery's exit where visitors can vote on the most effective forms of protest by dropping poker chips into jars labeled with actions such as "blogging and tweeting" and "petitions and letters of opposition."

"The students working with me understood the importance of history, but they knew their fellow students needed to be able to connect it with today," Arms Simon said.

In addition to highlighting San Francisco's civil rights history, the exhibit also provides a chance to showcase the University's special collections, which many students may not realize are available to them.

"There's a huge breadth of material here and it doesn't cost you a thing because you're a student," Arms Simon said. "You could use these resources to write a dissertation. It's all right here."

The Special Collections Library is located on the fourth floor of the J. Paul Leonard Library and is open to the public from 1 to 5 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays and from 1 to 7 p.m. Thursdays. Admission is free. To learn more about the Labor Archives and Research Center, visit http://www.library.sfsu.edu/larc. For more about the Bay Area Television Archive, visit http://www.library.sfsu.edu/about/collections/sfbatv/index.php. For more about the University Archives, visit http://www.library.sfsu.edu/about/depts/specialcol.php.

-- Jonathan Morales