The Daily Heller: When Civil Rights Became a Movement

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In last week’s New Yorker (the “Archive” issue), the magazine republished the late Nat Hentoff’s 1964 profile of a 23-year-old Bob Dylan, who, among other acts of conscience, went to the South to support The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It reminded me of those dangerous and courageous times of living history.

During the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, TV screens and national magazines were filled with visual indictments of American racism and evidence of routine human rights abuses. It was an epoch following the sacrifices by Americans made during World War II when the virulence of Jim Crow laws (and crimes) in the South and inequality in the North were at fever pitch. Civil Rights was the first mass uprising for social justice in the Postwar period. It predated the Vietnam peace movement and blended into its protests. For Southerners under the yoke of Jim Crow and Northerners disgusted by racist impunity, common cause made civil disobedience into a national mission, and freedom into a human goal. Many lives were lost for the cause.

Yet as the hard-won victories of that era are now being vociferously challenged in this age of the Black Lives Matter, it is essential for us to keep the earlier Civil Rights Movement at the forefront of our collective memory.

Making the Movement: Civil Rights Museum is an ongoing exhibit that explores how nonviolent weapons were used to combat Jim Crow. Founder and curator David L. Crane is a history instructor at Alamance Community College in North Carolina. He is also the author of Making the Movement: How Activists Fought for Civil Rights with Buttons, Flyers, Pins and Posters (Princeton Architectural Press, September), with an essay by Silas Munro.

This is not a “design” book, although graphic methods are used to communicate messages—but it is a history seen through the lens of these artifacts. I asked Mr. Crane to discuss the significance of his forthcoming volume.

The fight for Civil Rights has been a long and difficult journey. What triggered your preservation of this ephemeral iconography?
I began collecting artifacts from the Civil Rights Movement while in graduate school in 2006. My first one (which I discuss briefly in the introduction) was an NAACP member pin from 1954. I bought it off eBay for less than $20. When it arrived, I realized in that instant what drew me to it. Here was something tangible from that pivotal year in the Movement, and the more I thought about it, I realized that it was not a representation of that era, but a tool that activists used to achieve their goals. You can draw a straight line from the funds generated by the sale of that button to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Thurgood Marshall’s legal team, which successfully argued against school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education that same year. Making the Movement: Civil Rights Museum debuted at the Robert H. Jackson Center in New York in 2013.

Freedom Train pennant, 16″ x 5″, 1947 (all photographs courtesy of William Davis)

The book is quite clear from its subtitle what the focus is. In making this into an exhibition and book, what is your goal? And message?
My goal for the exhibition is to preserve the material culture of the Civil Rights Movement. These objects were not souvenirs. They were the nonviolent weapons that fought Jim Crow. They are significant political, social and cultural artifacts from the most important movement in American history, and they need to be preserved and recognized for that contribution. 

My goal for the book is to add material culture to the canon of the history of the Civil Rights Movement. I don’t want this to be the “definitive” work on the subject. It is the first work of its kind, but I want others to recognize that this is a vastly understudied aspect of the movement and deserves further inquiry. My message is that material culture has always been, is now, and therefore will always be a part of the Civil Rights Movement. I see the book and exhibition as a guide for current and future activists. This strategy has worked, and can be a successful part of the movement today and into the future.

Hon. Marcus Garvey Provisional President of Africa pinback, 1.25″, 1920–21

It appears from the illustrations in the book that buttons and badges were the primary medium. And with the notable exception of the War Bonds poster (which I believe is one of a series including other segregated branches of the service), much of the material was done on a tight budget. Is this true?
Most of the objects produced were pinbacks, buttons and badges, because they could be worn and easily displayed. People “stood behind” their beliefs, and they could be more readily displayed on one’s person than a sign or poster. There is something powerful about a physical object in a space, especially a public place. They were badges of honor, but could also make one a target for white supremacist violence. There were, however, many other kinds of objects produced, like pamphlets, stamps, hats, shirts, fans, flyers; the list really goes on.

As far as budgets were concerned, it often depended on the organization that produced them. I spoke with the late Dr. Julian Bond about the NAACP member pinbacks because he was a chairman emeritus, and he said, “we gave them away.” But as soon as he said it, he corrected himself and said, “No, no, no. We sold them, we used that money.” There were countless other organizations that had a much smaller budget that produced far fewer objects, but my point is they all did it. 

Making the Movement button for sale on

I recall the “=” button as being from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. At least, when I was a kid I wore one and my school was Andrew Goodman’s school (of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner infamy). That symbol was also used for the Urban League anti-poverty campaign, I believe. Was “equality” presented by other signs and symbols?
That is really interesting. I’d be curious to know whether other students at your school wore buttons and were engaged with the Movement. Was it widespread or limited to a few?

Walden School nurtured classic liberalism and social justice mostly, but a few heartfelt revolutionaries slid through. It was part of the aura of a “progressive school.”
The small black pinback with the white “=” was produced by SNCC, but you’re right that the Urban League used that symbol, as well, but I believe they used different colors. One could argue that the message of equality is present in all of the objects, but there were many more produced that used the word and symbol. For example, page 169 shows a button that reads “Equal Rights Now”; on page 151 there are three pinbacks with that language, “Democrats for Equality,” “Now = Kennedy” and “Vote = Equal Rights”; page 122 references the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. 

I presume it was not as dangerous to wear or distribute these “weapons” for Civil Rights in the North. But how were they seen in the South?
I think there is a misconception that “it wasn’t as bad in the North,” but that’s not really accurate. There was racial discrimination in hiring practices, segregation of schools, businesses and neighborhoods, acts of violence by police and citizens, as well as widespread racist beliefs by “Northerners.” It was very dangerous to wear and display these items almost anywhere in the country. It made them a target for ridicule, discrimination and violence. 

For every pro-Civil Rights object I find, there are 100+ anti. It is important to remember that the Civil Rights Movement was not popular among most Americans. If these were weapons, what were they fighting against? Those beliefs were far more widespread than those of equality under the law, including in the North.

Fellowship of Reconciliation, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story comic book, 7″ x 10.5″, 1957

Had there been wider media available to activists in those late ’50s early ’60s, do you think that the movement would have benefited or not?
As a historian, it is heresy to say “what would have happened,” but I understand what you’re asking. In many ways, these objects were the media. Wearing and displaying them helped spread the word, recruit new members and raise funds, but when there was traditional media coverage (as it is now) cameras captured these objects. 

I am often asked if physical objects have a place in a “digital world,” but think about all the coverage of the Black Lives Matter protests. It was a sea of signs, banners, posters, buttons, masks and T-shirts that served the same purpose now as they did in the 1950s and 1960s.

In some ways they were the social media of the time, but they were much more. It takes more courage to do this in public than it does to post something online, often anonymously, and it has a more profound impact on those that witness it. 

March on Washington flyer, 5.5″ x 8.25″, 1963

Do you know if there was a coordinated effort to unify a graphic identity during the Civil Rights Movement?
I don’t believe there was a coordinated effort to create objects with a similar “look,” but the design of the objects reflected their times. Those created in the 19th century look similar, just as those from the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. They were a reflection of the design aesthetic of the time, but also helped to define it. Material culture did, however, serve to create a sense of belonging to a shared “Civil Rights Movement” and one’s identity as a participant in that national struggle. 

What single word on a sign, placard or button most represented the power or strength of the movement?
There are so many I could point to, such as the iconic button (page 113) for the March on Washington made famous by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King as he gave his “I have a dream” speech; or those with a popular phrase like “We Shall Overcome” (page 166); but the one that stands out for me is the pinback on page 59 that reads “Finish the Fight NAACP 1946.” During and after WWII, civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP, sought to link their fight for equality at home with the fight against fascists abroad. We defeated a white supremacist anti-democratic regime in Germany, so let’s “finish the fight” against Jim Crow at home. It is so important I titled chapter 2 “Finish the Fight” because it encapsulates the significance of material culture to the goals of those in the movement at that time. 

“Double Victory Democracy Abroad—At Home” pinback, .75″, 1942–45

What was your curatorial cut-off for this material? Why not the more graphic elements of the Black Panthers or the Peace and Freedom party?
Although there are a few objects in the book that are not in the museum’s collection, 98% of the objects featured in the book are photos of the actual objects from the “Making the Movement: Civil Rights Museum” collection. They are not stock photos found from other sources. It was one of the biggest challenges in writing the book. If I don’t have the objects, it becomes very difficult to discuss them. My goal was not to curate away any “graphic” or controversial imagery, quite the opposite. Rather, I want to show that regardless of the goals or tactics of an organization, material culture was an important part of that strategy. The origins of the Black Panther Party’s most iconic image, the black panther, is discussed on pages 168–173. 

I recall some interesting, graphically striking album designs representing civil rights. Did you come across these in your research?
There are a few albums in the museum’s collection, but only one album cover made it into the book (page 101). The impact of music on the Movement has been studied and brilliantly written about in other works, so I did not want to muddy those waters. I decided to use the “Freedom In the Air” album from the sit-ins in Albany, GA, because of the use of that phrase and its association with the Freedom Singers. Freedom Singer Dr. Bernice Reagon told me that they often adapted gospel songs with new lyrics to convey the message of the movement. One of those songs goes, “Over my head, I see music in the air,” which is a reference to angels or heaven, but she sang, “Over my head, I see FREEDOM in the air.” I had the pleasure of hearing her sing it at a civil rights conference at Syracuse University in 2014, when “Making the Movement” was on display at the Community Folk Art Center. It brought the house down. (Here is a link to a recording.)