This decade will mark the 50th anniversary of the myriad of the seminal events for the Civil Rights Movement in the United States of America. It is, therefore, an opportune moment for review, remembrance and reflection as these occurrences change from current events to history. Visual artists were socially aware and politically active and helped the public understand the events transpiring in their communities. Rather than marching or overtly protesting they provided visual imagery that illuminate the times. These artists used visual irony, satire, parody, and caricature as potent weapons to highlight the oppression, hypocrisy and violent repression of African Americans by the segregationists and supremacists.
The prints were purchased because they were highly symbolic and provided a visual shorthand to convey the complex circumstances of The Civil Rights Movement. They allow those of us who experienced these events to remember and become reacquainted through their powerful symbolism, and for those who have no experience, through retracing the history can develop an insight and understanding.
Billy Morrow Jackson, the artist, has put the perpetration of violence against innocent people, into perspective, by using the motif of wild animals and recounting terrible crimes. Atrocities which were exercised on non-violent protestors, who were merely seeking their full measure of citizenship.
Jackson exposes the bastardized version of religion and patriotism, to clearly indicate what the civil rights activist were up against; death. The illusion of civilization has been stripped from the villains.
In the central hallway of the Centre for Haitian Studies, there are works from two artists who created images of the social justice movement that became known as the Civil Rights Movement — Billy Morrow Jackson and Frank Frazier. In this article, we will focus on Billy Morrow Jackson. A subsequent contribution will review Mr. Frazier’s Civil Rights and Related Art.
Billy Morrow Jackson was a white artist based in the Midwest whose subjects consisted of rural landscapes, farmhouses, portraits of friends and family, similar in tone and style to the paintings of Andrew Wyeth.
In this print series, he departed from his usual practices and created a portfolio that reflected the heroes and villains of the then, current, civil rights movement. The origin of his interest in the Civil Rights Movement is obscure. One factor could have been his interracial marriage. The couple were married in 1949, a time when interracial marriage was a courageous undertaking. Whatever the impetus, Jackson wanted to support the civil rights social justice agenda. His portfolio of 8 prints depicted some of the major protagonists, settings, and encounters of the movement. He especially emphasized the “villains” who were in opposition to Civil Rights. The prints were to be sold with the proceeds to be used to support the movement.
He tends to think of racism as a fearless, featureless system that does its devious work in a mechanical anonymous modus operandi. Mr. Jackson puts that fallacy to rest. In the 1960s, racism has a face, and well-known villains- including George Wallace, Ross Barnett, Bull Connors, etc. This does not eliminate the scourge of institutional racism, but during this period of in your face, personal racism was alive and well. Specific, and identifiable individuals perpetrated acts of oppression including murder. Evil was made flesh.
The following images of Billy Morrow Jackson do not have to be viewed in any specific order to be appreciated.
Key Events in Civil Rights History (1)
|1960||Integration of Central High School (Little Rock Nine) – Orval Faubus|
|1960||Lunch Counter Sit-ins (Woolworths – Greensboro North Carolina)|
|November 14th 1960||Integration of the William Franz School (New Orleans) – “The Trouble We Live With” by Norman Rockwell|
|September 1962||James Meredith Enters Ole Miss (Ross Barnett)|
|May 2nd 1963||Birmingham’s Children’s Crusade (Chief Bull Connor)|
|June 11th 1963||Wallace in The School House Door (George Wallace)|
|June 12th 1963||Assassination of Medgar Evers|
|August 28th 1963||March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom|
|September 15th 1963||16th Street Baptist Church Birmingham Bombing (Nacirema)|
|June 21st 1964||Civil Rights Workers – Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney (Police and Klan)|
|November 1964||Goldwater Campaign for President|
|February 18th 1965||Death of Jimmy Lee Jackson (Selma to Montgomery March – Voting Rights Act)|
|February 21st 1965||Assassination of Malcolm X|
|March 25th 1965||Viola Liuzzo (Police and Klan)|
|August 11th 1965||Watts Riots|
|Summer 1966||Emergence of Black Power – Greenwood Mississippi Speech in the James Meredith March Against Fear|
This image of Uncle Sam with a Top Hat partially (half) covering his face implies a degree of “shadiness”. Uncle Sam has multiple tattoos on his arms and completely covering his torso. The tats on his torso have the faces of four little girls: Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson who were killed September 15th, 1963 at the 16th Baptist Church bombing.
The Uncle Sam figure suggests that the government and the country are complicit and “inextricably linked” to their murder and are indelibly marked by the “stains” (tattoos) of violence and racism.
Their deaths were the result of an organized terrorist effort. Jackson has the name of a terrorist organization – “Nacirema”—American spelled backwards on his right forearm. This was a group that recruited and trained terrorist cells in bomb making and bombing techniques(2). Though this group was based in Georgia, it trained people from all over the south and had numerous sympathizers, acolytes, and fellow travellers.
Robert Chambliss, Ku Klux Klan member, placed the bomb at the church. Chambliss was originally found not guilty of murder and only received a fine and a six-month jail time for possessing dynamite. In 1977, he was tried again with new FBI evidence and sentenced to life in prison (where he died in 1985).
The surrounding red roses denote love and grief.
The lower abdomen is imprinted with the Alabama State flag, balls of cotton, and an hourglass with apparent time running out. Sand is filling up the lower half of the hourglass and the top of the hourglass is filled with carrion birds (vultures or buzzards).
The American Flag is on his right biceps and the Confederate Flag is on his left.
Birmingham earned the ‘nickname’ of ‘Bombing-ham’ due to the large number of unsolved bombings in the city over two decades.
Uncle Sam’s upper chest tattoo has an eagle clutching several arrows and a shield with the eagle’s head turned toward the arrows. When the eagle’s head is facing the arrows this usually indicates a state of conflict or war. The traditional olive branches have been replaced by an implement of war—a shield.
The image of the Tattooed Man can be contrasted with another piece in the collection— ‘I Remember Birmingham,” by Mr. John T. Scott, an artist who created his own memorials in honour of the four little girls.
In “Prometheus Ballet” Jackson references mythology—the story of Prometheus who was punished for bringing fire to the people—a symbol of enlightenment, hope, and independence.
As punishment, Prometheus was chained to Mount Caucasus for eternity. Vultures would eat his liver daily. The liver would regenerate overnight, and the cycle would begin again the next day. In this image, Jackson casts Martin Luther King as Prometheus holding the goblet of fire.
George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama, was cast in the role of the vulture. Governor Wallace was most famous for blocking the admission to the University of Alabama of Vivian Malone and James Hood by “standing in the schoolhouse door”. Wallace is seen as an arch segregationist as evidenced by his 1963 inaugural address — “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”(3) Wallace not only serves as the vulture in the narrative, he is shown wielding a fire hose that references the water hoses used by the police to “disperse” marchers and activists.
The figure of the fire hydrant is probably Eugene “Bull” Connor. Bull Connor was the Public Service Commissioner for the city of Birmingham. One of the strategies in the Birmingham protest was to fill-up the jails. Once the jails were full, in order keep protestors paralyzing commerce in the central city, fire hoses and attack dogs were used to disperse the demonstrators. In the myth, Hercules frees Prometheus from his punishment. In the background you can see two Uncle Sam’s—one black and one white. Two very different views of America and the body politic are contained in this one figure. The Uncle Sams are being split and John F. Kennedy is seen as emerging from his political chrysalis. Kennedy has been given the role of Hercules that will free Prometheus (King) from his imprisonment and torture.
Vultures/buzzards are prominent in several other prints because they are carrion feeders that subsist on the flesh of dead things. The slave culture was one that prospered from the suffering and death of others.
Stars and Bars: American Prison
In this “Stars and Bars: American Prison” Jackson has turned the flag on its side and uses the red stripes to recall prison bars. This represents the cultural and social constraints that face numerous groups in our society. In this image there is a direct reference to racial constraints, but the implied limits in society could also be based on gender, sex, religion, ethnicity, body type, etc. Think of the closet, the kitchen, the ghetto, etc. All are places of construction and confinement. For any of the folks behind “bars” to fully participate in American society, they first must make an escape.
Using the American Flag as a symbol is a longstanding tradition in American Art and has been employed by multiple visual artists. African American artists use the flag to denote the considerable contradictions in the American experience for African Americans. For those on Society’s margins, freedom and opportunity is often met with barriers and barricades preventing full participation by African American in mainstream society. Some of these artists, using the American flag, are listed in the table.
|Akin Duro (Dana Chandler)||4(00) More Years|
|Akin Duro (Dana Chandler)||Penal Colony|
|David Hammons||Black First, American Second|
|David Hammons||Injustice Case|
|Dread Scott||What Is the Proper Way to Display A US Flag?|
|Emma Amos||Stars and Stripes|
|Faith Ringgold||Flag for The Moon: Die Nigger|
|Harold D. Smith||Black Power 2009|
|Harold D. Smith||Modern Mandingo|
|Jean Michel Basquiat||Untitled (American)|
|William Pope||L. Trinket (4)|
The Infernal Triangle (5) implies an “unholy” trinity –the faithful, the political, and the purveyors of force. A vulture crown has replaced the pontiff’s mitre. The Pope holds a cross made of dynamite sticks that he is in the process of lighting. The vestments are emblazoned with the Confederate flag. George Wallace is sitting naked apart from epaulets on his shoulders and a crow on his head. He is staring into a mirror and evidently sees himself as a reflection of Christ (Crown of Thorns). In his lap is the dead body of a black man with a noose still around his neck. A portion of the image recalls the Pieta (The Pity) by Michelangelo. However, unlike the Pieta there is no evidence of concern or pity in this image. Wallace is seated on a pile of partially covered dead bodies whose heads can be seen peaking from underneath the draped cloth. (Death and destruction residing just beneath the surface of things: “As above, so below.” Wallace’s feet are drawn in an anatomically incorrect manner, implying the wrong direction or backwardness.
The final figure in the piece is a man in a bull headdress accompanied by a wolf/dog and carrying guns. As he controls the wolf/dog, Wallace controls him by a leash.
At the centre of this image is the Confederate flag. The alternative for the Confederate flag(5) has been the “Stars and Bars” or the Naval Confederate Battle flag, which, soon after its creation, became the ubiquitous symbol of the South. The meaning ascribed to this symbol has been furiously contested, but most have accepted that at its heart it is about slavery, segregation, and white supremacy. In modern times, Neo-confederates and supremacist “hate” groups have adopted this flag as their own and whatever any original intent to indicate pride and sacrifice, that meaning has been lost.
Compared to the other prints, at first glance, the “Sovereign Scarecrow” is relatively simple. It is centred on a scarecrow. The scarecrow is vested with the confederate flag and covered by numerous crows. The face belongs to Ross Barnett the former governor of Mississippi. There is a question regarding print effectiveness as a scarecrow. It appears that rather than scaring the birds, he is serving as a roost for them. It could be that we are missing the point. He may not be in place to scare the birds. Rather is he there to scare the Blacks?
There is also a nest in his top hat with eggs. Today’s crows will be replaced by a new generation. In perpetuity? It was Ross Barnett, who attempted to prevent the entry of James Meredith into the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), but was ineffective. Barnett is seen to be as the “straw man” in real life, as he is portrayed in this image.
One of Barnett’s arguments in support of his segregationist views was states’ rights. The governor believed that the States rights doctrine gave the State of Mississippi sovereignty over its institutions and allowed it to “interpose and nullify” federal statutes, effectively letting state laws supersede federal laws. This argument has been adjudicated in many venues and was found not to credible or constitutional.
One of the most heinous acts of savagery against the Civil Rights campaign was the murders of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney. They were northern students who journeyed south to aid in the voting rights campaign. They were abducted, tortured, mutilated, and ultimately killed by a combination of law enforcement officials, Klansmen, and Klan sympathisers. Their bodies were buried in an earthen dam on the property of one of the perpetrators. It was several months before the bodies were discovered. This incident was immortalized in popular culture in Don McLean’s epic song — “American Pie.”
These murders occurred in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The site would become infamous, even more so, as the place where Ronald Reagan launched his bid for the presidency. This is an example of “nod, nod, wink, wink” letting the south know that Reagan was on their side and represented a continuation of Nixon’s southern strategy. (Hardly Coincidental!!)
Merry Kristmas and Philadelphia
Civil rights suppression was always accompanied by violence. The Tools employed in that violence are prominently displayed in “Merry Kristmas and Philadelphia”. Violence usually begins with threats and intimidation. There are crosses and confederate flags. The crosses were “Lit” and placed in people’s yards or other very prominent places to intimidate the public and telegraph that even more drastic action would follow. The confederate flags symbolized the continued commitment to white supremacy.
There are gas canisters and bellows that indicate that burning and acts of arson were also frequently employed to kill and destroy the property of blacks and anyone deemed sympathetic to their cause.
In Santa’s “goodie” bag there are nooses, chains, hardhats, and guns. In the bottom of this frame there is a sheriff’s badge that allowed all this nefarious activity to be committed under the cover of “law”.
The Klansman has a Sawn-off shotgun and an ammo belt as well as a policeman’s billy club. On his shoulder he has a “dragon” with the head of a man and the body of a reptile.
For intimidation and enforcement purposes, the Klansman is accompanied by his wolf/dog. In this instance, the animal is standing guard over the ballot box. This also recalls that dogs were “sicced” on the demonstrators, who were attempting to register to vote.
The bottom right depicts a church with its entrance filled with sticks of dynamite.
The Klansman has his feet pointing in the wrong direction. This suggests that he is going backwards.
The child suggests that these attitudes and tendencies are acquired early in life and continued well into adulthood.
Nooses are prominent throughout the portfolio as they represent a culture of lynching which is itself a shorthand expression for extrajudicial killing (murder).
Black Man with Sign Board
This image of Black man wearing a sandwich board advertises the events, people and atrocities of significance to black life in America. On it we see a variety of images—John F. Kennedy, the American Flag and its reverse image, George Wallace in the schoolhouse door, Medgar Evers, the fire hoses from the Birmingham march, Martin Luther King, the police dogs threatening demonstrators, the nation of Islam (Fruit of Islam Fighter), a white cross and it’s black mirror image, a slain black man on the ground, Ross Barnett, Abraham Lincoln, black child situated between Islam and Christianity, Watermelon and Swastikas, and children running to the Capitol for safety.
One particularly striking image is the reversal of the American Shield emblem. The shield has been placed in the background rather than its usual position in the foreground in front of the bird. A crow has replaced the eagle. The arrows and olive branches that are held in the bird’s talons have been replaced by bolls of cotton and a noose. The motto ‘E Pluribus Unum’* has been replaced with—‘We Reserve the Right To’
The Right Society
“The Right Society” captures some of the complexity of the times. There are seven figures in this print. Starting at the far left, there is Malcom X. He is pictured with horns and an Islamic star as well as angel wings. This represents the alternate ways Malcom has been viewed. Seldom was anyone neutral. He was either an angel or a devil. He is playing a harp in the shape of an X.
The next figure is a man in an elephant/mammoth costume holding an American flag (revolutionary War.) The man/mammoth who is sitting on the egg is Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was the republican candidate for President, running against Lyndon Johnson, in 1964. He was known for his promotion of States Rights and was very much against Civil Rights. The mammoth is considered extinct. Does the egg imply that Goldwater “laid an egg” when he lost dismally to Lyndon Johnson? Relic of the past? He is being pumped up by the Klansman/Pope figure. Again, as in some other images the feet are pointing in an anatomically inaccurate direction.
In the background and the centre of the picture there is a medieval knight who is holding a scroll and a pen/spear. The scroll–made from a roll of toilet paper is hung from a plumber’s helper. This scroll contains pictures and symbols of many of the disreputable figures and discredited movements in history—Hitler, Stalin, Ku Klux Klan, Swastika, etc.
In examining the knight’s Armor more closely, it is apparent that it is not Armor at all, his chest piece is a TOILET. The handle is adjacent to the knight’s right shoulder. The toilet’s water tank is what serves as his breastplate. The knight’s head is emerging from the bowl of the toilet with the seat framing his ears like a pair of earmuffs. The lid, decorated with feathers, serves as the knights’ helmet. Through this single image we see Billy Jackson Morrow’s sense of humour and use of satire at their best.
The pen/spear is a reference to the John Birch society. This echoes the birch cane held by the mammoth.
The knight has a breastplate that is decorated with a vulture with a body (child?) held in its left talon. This image is very similar to the German coat of arms.
At the base of the knight there is a military officer holding a bomb.
The next figure is a Klansman who has an air pump that is blowing up the mammoth. Again, misdirected feet.
Under the Klansman, there is a rat with a human face reading what appears to be a bible. The rat is holding a cross that is constructed of four sticks of dynamite. On the rat’s chest, a portion of the confederate flag can be seen.
The final figure, anchoring the left side of the print, is George Wallace, with a confederate flag vest. Wallace has a wind-up screw in his head. George Wallace is holding the strings of a black marionette/puppet figure; this indicates the continued desire for white supremacy and control.