The Montgomery bus boycott, which took place from late 1955 to 1956, demonstrated what local citizens could accomplish through activism. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks became symbols of the people’s protest.
According to American Art, the Montgomery incident was successful because of the role that some women’s political groups and churches played in mobilizing thousands of African Americans to refrain from using segregated city buses.
However, the story of these remarkable women did not receive the attention it deserved. The thousands of boycotters who walked to work every day, the back-breaking pains they endured, and the degradation they absorbed had all been forgotten.
This void in history inspired Charles Alston to create his famous work “Walking” in 1958. It depicts the dozens of women who took part in the Montgomery bus boycott. He depicts them as tough-looking people in bright colors. He used the abstract approach to emphasize the women’s commitment to civil disobedience in order for their voices to be heard.
They were underrepresented in the news but rose to prominence in Alston’s work, which was solely dedicated to honoring them. He used two unknown women and two children to depict an inclusive reality of what happened in Montgomery in the 1950s.
Despite the fact that he painted this piece in 1958, before the 1965 civil rights marches in Alabama, placing it in the context of these events made it prophetic. It occurred during a period when the Black community became aware of their power and used marches to demand representation. As a result, Alston’s walking symbolism became a powerful tool that inspired future protests and was regarded as epic.
Alston was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, but spent his early childhood in New York, where he attended high school and college. He earned his MFA from Columbia University. His paintings also referenced the Harlem Renaissance, where he experimented with themes centered on ordinary African Americans.
During the Great Depression, he worked as a supervisor for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). At the WPA-sponsored Harlem Community Art Center, he mentored many young artists, including Jacob Lawrence. He was a driving force behind the formation of Spiral, a group of New York African-American artists who debated how to use art to depict racial inequality and social injustice in the 1960s.
Alston once stated that he was always moved to use his experience to document the inhumane treatment of African Americans in a racist setting. The painter and sculptor was among the first Black artists whose work was displayed at the Museum of Modern Art.
His works can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Detroit Institute of Art, the Butler Art Institute, and the Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries.
According to Art and Object, Alston’s bust of Martin Luther King Jr. was the first image of an African American to be displayed at the White House.