At 74, UCLA’s Paul Von Blum is not slowing down in his scholarship about and devotion to civil rights, human rights, art and cultural history. For 27 years he has taught courses on race, law and culture in UCLA’s departments of communication studies and African-American studies.
He had two books published during the last two years — one called “Creative Souls: African American Artists in Greater Los Angeles” released last fall, and “Civil Rights for Beginners,” which came out in January 2016.
As Black History month gets underway, Von Blum hopes that anyone interested in the civil rights movement will start to learn more about the activists and events beyond well-known faces like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed segregated schools.
In “Civil Rights for Beginners,” Von Blum traces the movement back to the earliest documentations of slave revolts in America, including the 1831 rebellion led by Nat Turner and on through the efforts of notable leaders, everyday people, scholars, writers, students and lawyers working through the decades leading to the 1960s.
“I want people to know that there is a long unbroken history of the Black civil rights movement,” Von Blum said. “In my mind, it began the first time an African person tried to resist being a slave. And it has never stopped since.”
Von Blum’s personal activism took shape at just 14 years old when he testified against the Ku Klux Klan, after that group burned a cross in the yard of his family home in a suburb of Philadelphia in 1957. His parents, both political activists, were part of a group of people who had tried to help a black family move into a segregated neighborhood.
Von Blum went on to participate in organizing and sit-ins throughout the 1960s, working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was a firsthand witness to King’s rousing speech at the March on Washington in August 1963.
That monumental speech was actually more radical than the final ubiquitous phrases that get shared widely as part of Black History Month, or celebrations of the civil rights icon, Von Blum said. He hopes that we can begin to more deeply revisit some of the vision King shared at that time.
“I was sitting there a couple of hundred yards away and he spoke quite radically about the debt that he believes America owes its Black citizens,” Von Blum recalled. “Let’s just say his economic vision was to the left of Bernie Sanders. He had a deep feeling about fundamental structural financial equality in America. It would be nice if our reflections of Black History Month were more comprehensively reflective of that vision.”
Von Blum attended law school at UC Berkeley and has handled racial profiling and other public interest cases for 40 years. He is the author of eight books and more than 100 articles on art, cultural history, law, education and politics.
Von Blum also teaches an honors course at UCLA called “The Critical Vision: A History of Art as Social and Political Commentary.”
He has served as curator or co-curator for several exhibitions at the Watts Towers and the California African American Museum in Los Angeles.
His latest book “Creative Souls: African American Artists” is a follow-up to his 2004 book titled “Resistance, Dignity, and Pride: African American Artists in Los Angeles.”
More than three years in the making, with “Creative Souls” Von Blum profiles 22 African-American artists living and working in and around Los Angeles, including Phoebe Beasley, Lili Bernard, Yrneh Gabon Brown, Dale Davis, Charles Dickson, George Evans, Mark Steven Greenfield, Zeal Harris, Bernard Hoyes, Ulysses Jenkins, Artis Lane, Derrick Maddox, Michael Massenberg, Dominique Moody, Noni Olabisi, Lezley Saar, Toni Scott, Joseph Sims, Teresa Toiliver, Timothy Washington and LaMonte Westmoreland.
Their work represents a wide variety of artistic styles including portraiture, photography, mixed media, multimedia and sculpture. The messages in their individual aesthetics run from the personal to the historical to the political. Von Blum said his goal is to give these artists valuable critical exposure that will hopefully lead to exhibition opportunities as well as chances for grants and funding. He will be curating an upcoming exhibition at the Watts Towers based on the artists profiled in “Creative Souls.”
“Their works are all vibrant expressions of African-American life,” Von Blum said. “I just want the world to know about African-American culture,” he said. “I grew up in the Civil Rights movement and I learned about black culture by being part of that community. It just kind of hit me that I could do this as part of my academic life.”
In December, Von Blum was surprised and pleased to win an award from the Los Angeles Press Club for his work as a book critic for Truthdig.com, where he often writes about Black and Chicano and Chicana authors and artists.