Museum Opens New Exhibit

A new exhibit titled "Wherever There's a Fight: A History of Civil Liberties in California" has opened at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum. The traveling exhibit, rich with narrative and photographs, animates the history of civil liberties focusing on the hidden stories of unsung heroes and heroines who stood up for their rights in the face of social hostility, physical violence, and economic hardship.

Biddy Mason (1818-1891) won freedom from slavery in landmark 1856 California legal case.

Biddy Mason (1818-1891) won freedom from slavery in landmark 1856 California legal case.

"Wherever There's a Fight" is part of California Council for the Humanities' thematic program, Searching for Democracy. The exhibit is based on the Heyday Books publication Wherever There's a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California, by Elaine Elinson and Stan Yogi (2009).

In both the book and the exhibit, four central themes are evident: civil liberties are essential for democracy; while civil liberties repeat over time, targeted groups change; civil liberties are in perpetual flux; and although the U.S. Constitution promises rights, every generation must fight for equality and justice to make them meaningful.

Thirteen interpretive panels of photographs and texts tell the stories of ordinary people capable of extraordinary acts, who fought violations of their civil liberties in California, reflecting the prejudices and political winds of the times.

These include Paul Robeson, who told the House Un-American Activities Committee, "You are the Un-Americans and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves." Anton Refregier's colorful murals, targeted for destruction by a 1953 Congressional inquisition but ultimately declared historically protected, depict true stories of Indians at the missions, anti-Chinese riots, and labor strikes. And in 1939, the Kern County Board of Supervisors banned John Steinbeck's instant best-seller, Grapes of Wrath, though six hundred readers had already put it on reserve.

"Banning books is so utterly hopeless and futile," says Kern County's librarian Gretchen Knief. "Ideas don't die because a book is forbidden reading."

Support for "Wherever There's a Fight" is provided by the Cal Humanities (CCH), whose thematic initiative, Searching for Democracy, is designed to animate a public conversation on the meaning of democracy today through a series of local, regional, and statewide humanities-inspired activities.

Funding is also provided by Exhibit Envoy, which provides traveling exhibits and professional services to museums throughout California.

"Wherever There's a Fight" will be on display at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum through June 16, 2013.

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