Skip to Content

SPIRIT in the DARK

Religion in Black Music, Activism, and Popular Culture

Photograph of Marvin Gaye in a purple jacket on stage performing

Sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background, at times in the shadows—but always somewhere in the frame—religion is essential to the story of Black America. In the Black press, which has served as a primary chronicle of Black life, religion often finds reflection in the images, comments, stories, and lives of noteworthy individuals, including religious and political leaders, musicians, authors, athletes, activists, and educators. The photographs and stories in this exhibition, drawn from the Johnson Publishing Company archive, reflect diverse aspects of the Black religious experience and testify to the role religion has played in the struggle for human dignity and social equality.

About the Johnson Publishing Company

Black and white photograph of Malcolm X addressing a mass meeting at Brown Chapel AME Church, Selma, Alabama

Malcolm X addressing a mass meeting at Brown Chapel AME Church, Selma, Alabama, February 4, 1965; photo by unidentified photographer

Founded in 1942 by John H. and Eunice W. Johnson, the Johnson Publishing Company celebrated African American culture with its foundational publications—Ebony, Jet, and Negro Digest (later Black World). The magazines and many other, lesser-known Johnson publications bore witness to Black life well into the 21st century. The photographs featured in Spirit in the Dark are from a legacy collection of 2,800 of the most iconic images from the Johnson Publishing Company archive, now jointly owned by NMAAHC and the Getty Research Institute.

Black and white photograph of Malcolm X addressing a mass meeting at Brown Chapel AME Church, Selma, Alabama

Malcolm X addressing a mass meeting at Brown Chapel AME Church, Selma, Alabama, February 4, 1965; photo by unidentified photographer

Explore Exhibition Themes

Reverend Ike's Ensemble

This lavish ensemble, worn by religious broadcaster Reverend Ike, is a signification of Ike’s theological teachings, which emphasized luck, wealth, and abundance in the here and now. Explore Reverend Ike’s suit in this interactive feature and read more about his story in Lived Realities: Suffering | Hope.

Image of a suit and jacket worn by Reverend Ike mounted on a mannequin.

Spirit in the Dark: Religion in Black Music, Activism, and Popular Culture is presented by the Museum’s Center for the Study of African American Religious Life and the Earl W. and Amanda Stafford Center for African American Media Arts. All photographs in the exhibition are from the Johnson Publishing Company Archive. Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust and Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Made possible by the Ford Foundation, J. Paul Getty Trust, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Smithsonian Institution.

Spirit in the Dark: Related Content

Spirit In The Dark NMAAHC Exhibition Page

Spirit in the Dark

NMAAHC Exhibition Information

Learn more about the special exhibition on view at the Museum

An issue of Ebony Magazine from October 1949. The cover features Lena Horne and Duke Ellington against an orange background.

Johnson Publishing Company: Image Power

Making a Way Out of No Way

From Ebony and Jet magazines to advertising and fashion, John H. Johnson’s company revolutionized how Black Americans saw themselves.

A black-and-white photographic postcard of men, women, and children gathered in front of a church. There are losses at TC and TL.

Foundations of Faith

Making a Way Out of No Way

African Americans developed diverse religious institutions that served the spiritual and social needs of their communities.

Muhammad Ali Boxing photograph

75 Years of Ebony Magazine

Explore the Johnson Publishing Collection and celebrate 75 years of Ebony magazine and the African American experience