Identity and civil rights in 1960s America

Does the figure emerge from the flag, or does it imprison him?

Benny Andrews, Flag Day, 1966, oil on canvas, 53.3 x 40.6 cm ©The Benny Andrews Estate (The Art Institute of Chicago). Speakers: Robyn Farrell, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, and Beth Harris

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Andrews, Flag Day

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Key points

  • In the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement promised greater equality for African-Americans, who struggled for visibility and equal rights.
  • It isn’t clear how Andrews intends us to interpret the relationship between the man and the American flag in this painting. The flag may symbolize the promise of freedom and democracy, or it may suggest that the United States remains a hostile environment for African-Americans.
  • The artist’s experience as the son of sharecroppers in Georgia and in the racially-divided New York art world led him to advocate for greater equality in society, as well as within the cultural sector.

Go deeper

A short of Benny Andrews talking about the impossibility of defining Black art

Learn more about this painting at the Art Institute of Chicago

Learn more about Benny Andrews

See primary source and multimedia documents about the Civil Rights Act

See primary source documents about the Voting Rights Act of 1965

What was the impact of the Harlem on My Mind exhibition on the art world?

See primary source documents on the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition

See photographs of sharecroppers

What was life like in the Jim Crow South?

More to think about

The 1960s was an era of protest by many different groups, many of which used art in their campaigns. For an artist involved in activist causes, why do you think Benny Andrews left the meaning of Flag Day so unclear?

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.