William H. Johnson (1901–1970) painted his Fighters for Freedom series in the mid-1940s as a tribute to African American activists, scientists, teachers, and performers as well as international heads of state working to bring peace to the world. He celebrated their accomplishments even as he acknowledged the realities of racism, violence, and oppression they faced and overcame. Some of his Fighters—Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, Marian Anderson, and Mahatma Gandhi—are familiar historical figures; others are less well-known individuals whose determination and sacrifice have been eclipsed over time. Johnson elevates their lives, offering historical insights and fresh perspectives. Through their stories he suggests that the pursuit of freedom is an ongoing, interconnected struggle, with moments of both triumph and tragedy, and he invites us to reflect on our own struggles for justice today. In Fighters for Freedom Johnson reminds us that individual achievement and commitment to social justice are at the heart of the American story.
This exhibition is drawn entirely from the collection of more than 1,000 works by William H. Johnson given to the Smithsonian American Art Museum by the Harmon Foundation in 1967. Since that time, SAAM has organized exhibitions and installations of Johnson’s work and pursued an ongoing program of conservation for these fragile paintings.
The exhibition is organized by Virginia Mecklenburg, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
On the Blog
Eye Level, November 2, 2020, “Unpacking and Preserving William H. Johnson’s Fighters for Freedom Series”
Explore the Fighters for Freedom
Decode imagery and discover hidden stories in artist William H. Johnson's Fighters for Freedom series. Reflect on connections between the individuals portrayed, from iconic to lesser-known, and how past struggles for justice may relate to the present.
Explore the biographies of the figures William H. Johnson portrayed in eight of his Fighters for Freedom paintings, as well as the artist himself. Close-looking questions, primary source connections, and reflection prompts are included in this Sutori resource.
Uncover meaning behind the imagery embedded in William H. Johnson's Fighters for Freedom paintings through this Smithsonian Learning Lab collection. Explore Johnson's visual references and historical source material, and discover little-known figures in Black history.
Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from Art Bridges, Faye and Robert Davidson, and the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation.