Who Are Today’s Fighters for Freedom?

Connecting William H. Johnson’s Fighters” to today’s changemakers

Emily Berg
A photograph of Phoebe Hillemann
Phoebe Hillemann
Teacher Institutes Educator
June 18, 2024
Two visitors look at a timeline on a wall. Behind them is a painting hanging on a blue wall and the words "Fighters for Freedom" with text underneath.

Visitors look at a timeline of William H. Johnson's life. Photo by Albert Ting

When painting his Fighters for Freedom series in the mid-1940s, artist William H. Johnson bridged the past and the present, looking back on three centuries of history to depict freedom fighters from the American Revolution up to his contemporaries in the 20th century. By linking generations of activists, educators, politicians, and entertainers advocating for racial and social equality, Johnson invited viewers to consider both the progress society has made towards those ideals and the work still left to be done. Eighty years after he created these paintings, the struggle for justice continues.  

As part of our education plan for SAAM's exhibition Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice, we wanted visitors of all ages to feel welcome and included in the gallery experience, and to represent a diverse range of voices. A key aspect of our interpretive approach was to offer multiple entry points for visitors in gallery—including videos, kiosks, tactile reproductions of paintings, and children’s books—as well as online resources

We also wanted to continue Johnson’s work linking history to the present. How could the exhibition invite visitors to make connections to our world today?

Response cards with letters and drawings hang on a purple gallery wall.

A mural of student responses in the exhibition Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice. Photo by Albert Ting

Student Responses

One way we did this was through the voices of students. Visitors to the exhibition will encounter a mural and book in the last gallery, featuring the writing and drawing of young people ages 8 to 18 in response to the question: “Who inspires you by fighting for justice today?”  

We posed this question to students across the country last fall, via a written prompt we sent to teachers who had participated in SAAM’s Summer Teacher Institutes. Students were asked to handwrite their responses and had the option to include a drawing of the person they chose to write about.  

We were blown away by their submissions! Students chose to write about a wide range of people who inspired them, from global activists to athletes and performers, to family members and educators in their lives.  

A card with a hand-drawn image of the ballerina Misty Copeland and a student's reason for choosing her as a fighter for freedom.

Response by Esther, age 10, about Misty Copeland.

“Misty Copeland inspires me because she speaks out for what is right. For example, she started the Plié Society which includes boys and girls and welcomes people of all colors. She is an advocate for the Black ballet community and shows that everyone is equal.” — Esther, age 10, Nashville, TN 

A card with a letter about the student's grandfather and the reason for choosing him as a fighter for freedom.

Response from Jonathan, age 11, about his grandfather.

“My grandfather fought in the Vietnam War. He inspired me to never back down: my grandfather was captured, but he never gave up ... He stayed strong, and when he had to move to a new country, he stayed motivated.” — Jonathan, age 11, Skokie, IL 

A card with a hand-drawn image of Dolores Huerta and a student's reason for choosing her as a fighter for freedom

Response from Valentina, age 13, about Dolores Huerta.

“Dolores Huerta inspires me because she fought for the life conditions of farmworkers, immigrants, and women.” — Valentina, age 13, Puerto Rico

It’s easy to find connections to Johnson’s “Fighters” if you look for them; ballerina Misty Copeland is breaking down barriers for Black women in dance like Katherine Dunham and Josephine Baker before her. Dolores Huerta’s labor activism for farm workers builds on A. Philip Randolph’s legacy organizing the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union. Greta Thunberg’s climate activism today is not so far removed from George Washington Carver’s advocacy for sustainable farming practices.

“Greta Thunberg inspires me because I’m 11 years old, and if Greta can start a school strike to save the climate at 11 years old, then I can do anything I set my mind to. And there’s no point in waiting.” — Layla, age 11, Nashville, TN

Other students are thinking about issues Johnson could not have imagined — the ethics of AI images, for example.  

A card with a hand-drawn image of a TV with the letters "AI" on the screen and an axe going through the top. A student's reason for choosing Molly Crabapple as a fighter for freedom is written out on the left side.

Response from Tristan, age 11, about Molly Crabapple.

“Someone fighting for justice today who inspires me is Molly Crabapple, because Molly is an AI images activist, artist, and author. AI images steals any illustration posted on the internet and is slowly replacing talented artists. Molly has several podcasts and interviews about this and speaks against AI images.” — Tristan, age 11, Norfolk, VA

What connects all the responses, however, is a belief that individuals can make a difference in the world, working towards a better future.

Display of cards with letters spelling out the word "Inspired" across the board.

Responses to the exhibition shared by SAAM’s visitors. Photo by Emily Berg

Visitor Responses 

Visitors have the chance to read, reflect, and respond to Johnson’s works and the exhibition itself by responding to the prompts: “This exhibition makes me think…” and “This exhibition makes me feel…”. The three thousand thoughtful responses we’ve received thus far indicate that visitors are building empathy, feeling empowered, and considering new perspectives.  They feel seen, inspired, and appreciative of the multiple ways to explore and learn in the exhibition:  

“There may be hope in this polarized world.”  

“[I’m] inspired to continue working towards change and that we must never forget where we come from.”

“This exhibit makes me think about identity and the healing power of community, idols, and representation (…) so many people found their voice to pave the way for me to find mine.”  

Visitors are also responding directly to the students’ writing:

“I literally got chills looking at the wall of students’ work. I am hopeful for a better tomorrow and great that these kinds of things exist.”

“Grateful for the work of our ancestors, and hopeful for the future. The students’ writing is inspiring!”

“Children are our future, and they have the possibility to use every struggle to inspire a world of change.” 

A response card filled out by Adam. The heading states "This exhibition makes me feel..." and he has written in a response at the bottom.

One visitor’s response to the prompt: “This exhibition makes me feel…”. Photo by Phoebe Hillemann

One visitor responded that they felt “uplifted” by the exhibition, and wondered: “What would Johnson paint today...who would he add to this collection now?”

Reading these thoughtful responses each day, we’re gratified that the exhibition is creating space for conversation and connection. Clearly, William H. Johnson’s work continues to impact viewers and his legacy carries on.

We invite you to reflect on the question: Who inspires you by fighting for justice today? 

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