William H. Johnson’s “Fighters for Freedom” Paintings Exhibited Together After 75+ Years

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is showing artist William H. Johnson’s full “Fighters for Freedom” series together for the first time in over 75 years.


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Johnson (1901–1970) painted the “Fighters for Freedom,” his last body of work, in the mid-1940s as a tribute to African American activists, scientists, teachers, performers, and world leaders working toward peace.

Now, for the first time since 1946, the 34 paintings featured in the series (including 32 drawn from the museum’s collection of more than 1,000 works by Johnson) are being shown together. Two paintings, “Three Great Freedom Fighters” and “Against the Odds,” are on loan from the Hampton University Museum of Art.

Entrance to SAAM’s “Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice” exhibit. Image: Kate Michael

Some of Johnson’s “Fighters”—Marian Anderson, George Washington Carver, Mohandas Gandhi, and Harriet Tubman—are familiar figures; others, like Nannie Helen Burroughs and William Grant Still, may be less well-known.

“Through Johnson’s ‘Fighters for Freedom’ paintings, we learn about people who changed lives, promoted equality, valued legacy and demonstrated unflagging determination in the face of almost insurmountable challenges,” exhibition curator Virginia Mecklenburg said. “He tells us that the continued fight for equity, dignity and equality for all is central to the American story.”

The museum has created short videos to accompany some of Johnson’s works, as well as other educational materials and in-gallery interpretations. There is also a visual timeline that puts Johnson’s own life events in context with key moments in African American history and the lives of his “Fighters.”

Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice” is on view through Sept. 8 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s main building.