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How posters and badges spread civil rights

By Laura Allsop for CNN
  • Visual culture was crucial to spreading the Civil Rights message in the U.S.
  • Exhibition in Washington looks at visual culture from the 1940s-70s
  • Included are photos, newsreels, posters, pamphlets and newspapers
  • Importance placed on creating positive self-images among African Americans

London (CNN) -- Rousing speeches by gifted orators such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were crucial to the struggle for civil rights in America.

Just as important was visual culture, which took in photographs and posters, pamphlets and buttons inventively designed by graphic artists within the movement and distributed across America.

An exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, entitled "For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights," looks at how visual culture was used to spread the message of equal rights from the 1940s to the 1970s.

"My work as a cultural historian has been concentrated on how visual images can alter and inspire and move public opinion," said Maurice Berger, curator of the exhibition.

"Six or seven years ago, I decided to build an archive of Civil Rights materials and begin to get an understanding of how these images looked, who saw them, and how they operated within culture and society," he continued.

Included in the show are photographs, clips of newsreel and documentary footage, African-American newspapers and periodicals, and "portable" culture such as fans, buttons, posters and pamphlets.

(It) was the first American political movement to truly take advantage of the new technology
--Maurice Berger, curator

"Certainly the struggle for civil rights significantly predates the rise of picture magazines and television," said Berger.

"The modern Civil Rights movement was the first American political movement to truly take advantage of the new technology of seeing and representing the world," he said.

Not only was the movement canny in exploiting the new media outlets of the time, it also took advantage of what Berger called "localized black culture," distributing visual material in churches, for example.

The images that circulated throughout the United States exposed the oppression of African Americans as well as changing the way African Americans depicted themselves, according to Berger.

"In the 1940s, 50s and 60s, the culture was still filled with negative, stereotyped images of black people," he said.

"What happened, especially with the emergence of the Black Arts Movement, was the idea that if you could generate positive images within the African American community, you could embolden and empower that community to begin to see its own role as a people equal to whites."

One of the movement's leading artists was Emory Douglas, the Minster of Culture for the Black Panther Party, whose posters and artworks for the party are displayed in the show.

Douglas said of his work, which was distributed in The Black Panther newspaper during the 1960s and 70s: "You started to get a lot of feedback in the community. (African Americans) began to see themselves in the images, they became the heroes, kind of like on stage."

In the context of the (Black Panther) party itself, it was through observation that people learnt
--Emory Douglas, artist

Douglas's images for The Black Panther newspaper aimed to do three things: Symbolize police oppression towards the community -- often depicting the police as pigs; present images of African American self-determination and especially the Black Panthers' radical social programs; and show solidarity with people's struggles all over the world.

Posters and images became central to spreading the Black Panthers' message, Douglas said, because of often low levels of literacy among African-American communities.

"In the context of the party itself, it was through observation that people learnt more than through reading," he said.

The importance of self-perception to the movement, said Berger, is particularly illustrated in footage from 1964 documentary "Take This Hammer," which is screened in the exhibition.

In it, the author James Baldwin asks young African Americans in San Francisco if they think there would ever be a black President, to which they answer "No."

Baldwin's response -- that there will be a black President, "but it will not be the country that we are sitting in now" -- indicates, said Berger, the author's belief that change could take place only once people changed the way they viewed themselves in the culture at large.

On the viewers' response to the clip, he said, "There isn't a dry eye in the house."