HOW GRAPHIC DESIGN INFLUENCED PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT AND PARTICIPATION IN POLITICS DURING THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT?
SARA TITILAYO LAWAL :)
GRAPHIC BRANDING & IDENTITY
For one of my Self Initiated Projects, I have decided to explore the impact of Graphic Design during the Civil Rights Movement. Specifically researching how striking promotional designs and visuals helped to promote social change and abolish the Jim Crow Law. I would then like to analyse and question if political graphics within the United Kingdom today still plays a pivotal role to help mend political divides within society. Based on all the research I have completed so far for this project I thought it would be a good idea to document it in a critical writing piece for one of my WOW Blogs. Therefore this entry will explore how Graphic Design influenced participation and public engagement during the CRM.
The Civil Rights Movement was such an important moment in the African American struggle as it “influenced protest internationally”. Members were combining methods of protest to have a chance of living in freedom against all forms of oppression. A key element of protest was using the “mass media” to their advantage and spreading powerful messages that would relate to many African Americans who live in struggle. Political Graphics were used during the civil rights movement as they had the power to inspire an entire generation to commit to resistance for change! The Black Panther Party developed a Ten Point Programme which clearly analysed how they wanted to tackle the problem of injustice – they used visuals to express their fears and hopes.
This blog will be divided in to three parts where I will begin to question:
After the assassination of Malcom X in 1965 the call for black power within the Civil Rights Movement became much more vociferous (2010, pg. 65). The Black Panther Party previously known as the Black Panther Party for Self Defense were at the forefront of this shift towards a more radical movement where black pride was based upon showing the community how to take control of their own destiny rather than degrading white citizens (2016, pg. 10). As a party they prioritized developing a strong graphic Identity which would help to “protect, liberate, nurture and educate all African Americans”, so they could spread their message through both text and visuals (2010, pg. 65). Emory Douglas; a trained graphic designer, was brought into work on the Black Panther Party News Paper alongside Eldridge Cleaver who had already begun the process of developing a “powerful visual identity” for the party (2017, pg. 62). Douglas believed that it was extremely important for the party to “further it’s struggle” through “creative self-representation” (2016). Douglas (2017, pg. 62) used the phrase “revolutionary art” to articulate his belief that like the Black Panther Party who faced many social issues “revolutionary art” and political graphics are created so everybody can deal with the present issue together. He continued to explain how it is more important that everybody can understand the “correct picture” over understanding the “correct political” explanation (2017, pg. 62). During the Civil Right Movement there was extremely low levels of exposure to literary education for African Americans leaving many illiterates therefore Douglas Graphics played a huge part in just educating the community. Bobby Seale (2016, pg. 109) explains why Douglas graphics were “very important” for the movement and the newspaper especially. He explained how he never had a vision for the Black Panther Party Newspaper to solely consist of a “sea of type on every page”, he understood the importance of imagery and believed without the visual element the paper would go “nowhere” as nobody would see it and many “grass root people” wouldn’t be able to read it (2016, pg. 109). Emory did understand this, and he knew that his job was just a matter of “getting information out”, his goal was to reflect the ten-point programme or the political concerns of the community through imagery.
For Douglas (2017, pg. 62) rifles were a vocal element within many of his graphics, the rifles were a depiction of the black panther party’s agenda to exercise “their legal right to carry armed forces” in any event where they need to defend themselves against the police brutality and violence. The use of the rifle is also a visual representation of ITEM 7 in the Ten Point Programme “We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people”. Douglas really appreciate the power of imagery he portrayed the police, politicians and bankers as “pigs and rats” juxtaposed against heroic black women who actually fought against these actual rats, against oppression and in stand for solidarity. Gloria explained how she believed that the newspaper was essentially the “life blood” of the black panther party, a key reason for this as they made true genuine attempts to connect with the people and community. This was a key technique they used to grow the party itself.
Emory Douglas (2017, pg.62) stated that “the ghetto itself is the gallery for the revolutionary artists drawings” therefore “by taking it out of the museum and putting it on the street with the people the revolutionary artist educates the people as they go through their daily routine.” This statement clearly explains why his graphics were so successful and were able to resonate with so many people. Emory Douglas wanted his design to relate to the people, he wasn’t creating for commission or for a museum instead for the people. His work became part of their everyday life and many relied on this as a form of education to be able to partake in politics and develop their own stance on the issue.
Although visual graphics play such a statement role in the Civil Rights Movement it is essential to remember that an idea and concept is behind everything. For the black panther party, the ten-point programme was the foundation of their work. It was essentially the “dream”, an ideal that all would aim to achieve in their lifetime and has been considered to be there legacy that they will be remembered by! As shown below reads the TEN POINT PROGRAMME: “We Want Freedom. We Want Power to Determine. The Destiny of Our Black Community. We Want Full Employment for Our People. We Want an End to The Robbery by the Capitalists of Our Black Community. We Want Decent Housing Fit for The Shelter of Human Beings. We Want Education for Our People That Exposes the True Nature of This Decadent American Society. We Want Education That Teaches Us Our True History. And Our Role in The Present-Day Society. We Want All Black Men to Be Exempt from Military Service. We Want an Immediate End to Police Brutality and Murder of Black People. We Want Freedom for All Black Men Held in Federal, State, County and City Prisons and Jails. We Want All Black People When Brought to Trial to be Tried In Court by a Jury Of Their Peer Group or People From Their Black Communities, As Defined By The Constitution Of The United States. We Want Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice and Peace.” War Against the Panthers, by Huey P. Newton, (1980) This manifesto holds mass amounts of power. It is the vision of freedom and a magna carta for African Americans (2016, pg.14)! Although the graphic visuals were a key element for the success of the black panther party it is essential to recognise that the foundation of success came from an educational perspective and the visuals were based on this. If it was not a ten-point programme the visuals could have been totally different.
Graphic design is a “powerful tool” especially in “mass protest” due to its ability to “incite change” (2018, pg. 11). This idea was especially prevalent during the Civil Rights movement where protest graphics were used as weapons, tools for education and a medium to spread messages globally. Greenwald (2010, pg. 64) explains how the civil right movement played such a significant period of time which “influenced protest internationally”. Organisations which have been directed by oppressed groups have played a key role in fundamentally changing societies perception of how power truly functions in this world, which has led many movements to find a voice that they previously never realised that they had. During the Civil Rights Movement activists truly understood the importance of “protest design” making sure that they used the mass media to their advantage. They spread their ideas through images and “broadcasted them globally” in the hope to inspire others to join the movement. After the political repression of the Black Panther Party in the US formed the Black Liberation Army. An underground Black Power organisation that was up and running between 1970 to 1981. For the Black Liberation Army Assata Shakur become a clear symbol for “black resistance” (2010, pg. 66). In 1973 Assata was convicted of the first-degree murder of State Trooper Werner Foerster during the New Jersey Turnpike shootout! Shakur was a member of the Black Panther Party initially the when she joined the black Liberation Army she became “extremely popular in the African American Community” (2010, pg. 66). The African American community were all greatly in solidarity with her when she was on the run, many would place “Assata Shakur is Welcome Here” posters in their windows if she ever was on the run. The simple act of opening showing solidarity placing a poster which could cause much controversy really reinforces the belief that (2018 pg.11) “graphic design increases public engagement with and participation in politics”, no matter how big or small the action maybe.
In conclusion, it is evident that Graphic Design played a huge role during the Civil Rights Movement in terms of spreading a message through visuals that couldn’t be communicated to everyone through text. Images bring communities together and build a united front. Not only has graphic design played a “pivotal role” in terms of responding to political movements but it has also deeply challenged, changes and dictated many political movement and milestones (2018, pg. 11). In relation to the theory of Avant Garde Theophile Thore (1991, pg.1) explains how “Art changes only through strong conviction, convictions strong enough to change society at the same time”. I believe this concept is extremely relevant to my question looking at how Graphic Design has influenced public engagement and participation in politics during the civil rights movement. If the design tells a compelling story more people will choose to listen which will therefore result into an influx in society driven changes!
DAVIS, A (2016) Freedom is a Constant Struggle Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books
GREENWALD, D; MACPHEE, J (2010) Signs of Change Oakland California: AK PRESS
GODFREY, M; Tate Modern (2017) Soul of a Nation London: Tate Publishing
MCGUIGAN, J (1996) Culture and Public Sphere London: Routledge
MCQUISTON, L (1993) Graphic Agitation Social and Political Graphics London: Phaidon
NOCHLIN, L (1991) The Politics of Vision London: Thames and Hudson
ROBERTS, L and SHAW, D (2018) Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics London: The Design Museum
SHAMES, S and SEALE, B (2016) Power to the People – The work of the Black Panthers New York: Abrams
SHOLETTE, G (2017) Delirium and Resistance London: Pluto Press, FIRST EDITION
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