3 Great Political Posters That Changed U.S. History

We all know that pictures speak a thousand words - and these posters, with their bold illustrations and persuasive slogans, drive that point straight home. Since the early 20th century, civil rights advocates, military recruitment officials, political agitators, grassroots community leaders, and student activists have all utilized posters in order to propel their messages into the mainstream. Here, a look at some of the most memorable, widely disseminated pieces of political art in U.S. history.

1. Rosie the Riveter "We Can Do It" Poster
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, men were enlisting in the military in record numbers, leaving a void in the work force. To address the issue, the government issued several propaganda posters beckoning women to put their domestic duties aside and seek out jobs at factories, construction companies, and shipyards, becoming streetcar conductors, taxi drivers, and railroad workers, and foraying into other typically male-dominated realms. The most prominent poster featured an image of the fictional character "Rosie the Riveter." Illustrator Norman Rockwell created this now iconic image of Rosie, which was originally published on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on May 29, 1943. In the illustration, Rosie is pictured in a blue jumpsuit with one sleeve rolled up to reveal her flexed bicep and her hair wrapped in a polka dot scarf, with the words "We Can Do It!" floating atop in a comic book-like speech bubble. Thanks to images such as this one, the female workforce rose from 27% to 37% from 1940 to 1945.

2. John Fitzpatrick's Che Guevara Poster In 1967, Irish artist John Fitzpatrick created this striking image of Che Guevara, the Argentine Marxist doctor, thinker, and revolutionary who served as Fidel Castro's second-in-command during the Cuban Revolution, To create the poster, Fitzpatrick utilized an image of Guevara taken by Alberto Korda, Castro's official photographer, at a memorial service in 1960. When Fitzpatrick saw Guevara's image in the German magazine Stern, he decided to interpret it and create a poster that could be widely disseminated and could raise awareness about El Che's efforts in Bolivia, where he was leading another revolution.

3. "Warning! Our Homes Are In Danger Now!" World War II Poster Produced by General Motors in 1942, this image depicts a Luger-toting Adolf Hitler and a bloody knife-wielding Japanese man (presumably a reference to Emperor Hirohito) hovering over a globe, their hands clawing the surface before them and their sights set on a map of North America. Meant to instill a sense of fear and urgency among the masses, the poster features the word "Warning!" at the top and the message "Our Homes Are In Danger Now!" along the bottom. Though similar propaganda posters were issued throughout the course of World War II, this was by far one of the most terrifying, sensationalist images utilized.

4. "Boycott Grapes: Support the United Farm Workers" Poster In the summer of 1972, Arizona lawmakers passed a law that made it illegal for farm workers to go on strike or lead any boycotts. In response, Mexican-American United Farm Workers of America founder Cesar Chavez mobilized the masses, climaxing in a massive boycott the following year, when the UFW's three-year grape contract expired and many grape growers chose to make under-the-table deals with the UFW's opposition, the Teamsters Union, an organization that didn't protect workers' rights. In response to these injustices, artist Xavier Viramontes created this poster in 1973, which features an Aztec warrior squeezing blood out of red and green grapes. The poster became a key visual element in Chavez's grassroots efforts which, in turn, proved rather effective: according to a Louis Harris poll taken in 1975, 17 million Americans were boycotting grapes at the time.

5. "Silence Equals Death" Poster In 1984, when the Center for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that 4,177 AIDS cases had been reported in America, then-president Ronald Reagan remained silent about the health crisis and instead seemed to silently agree with the views of right-wing hate monger Pat Buchanan who, in 1983, stated that AIDS was "nature extracting an awful retribution" on homosexuals. In 1987, in order to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS, six New York-based gay activists formed the Silence = Death Project and began distributing these posters, featuring the "Silence = Death" slogan beneath a pink triangle, which was meant to reference the Holocaust, during which homosexuals were forced to wear inverted pink triangle badges in Nazi concentration camps. The posters underlined a sense of urgency by drawing these parallels and making people understand that an open discussion about safe sex was the only way to save lives. The logo and the slogan were later adopted by the non-profit organization Act Up, which continues to use them to this day.

6. "I Want You for the U.S. Army" Poster
Created by James Montgomery Flagg, this portrait of Uncle Sam beckoning the masses to enlist in the U.S. Army originally appeared on the cover of the July 6, 1916 issue of Leslie's Weekly. Over four million copies of the image were printed in poster form between 1917 and 1918, at the dawn of World War I. A slightly altered version of the poster was also used during World War II, making this perhaps the most popular and iconic image used in U.S. political propaganda.

7. "Unity In Our Love Of Man" Poster
This piece, which depicts a young Vietnamese boy giving his younger brother a piggyback ride through the fields, was one of several posters designed, printed and distributed by California student activists during a series of protests against the Vietnam War printed at the University of California at Berkeley between 1968 and 1973.

8. Huey P. Newton Poster In this dramatic photograph, taken in 1967, the Black Panther Party's Minister of Defense and one of its founders, Huey P. Newton, is pictured sitting atop a throne-like wicker chair, with a rifle in his right hand and a spear in his left. Decked out in a black leather jacket, a black beret, and military boots, Newton stares at the camera defiantly, driving home the BPP's message of self-defense. When Oakland police raided the BPP headquarters in the fall of 1968, following a third degree voluntary manslaughter conviction for Newton, they ravaged the space, leaving it ridden with bullet holes and destroying a life-seized poster of this very image. Undeterred, young radicals continued to taking to the streets, hanging up posters such as this one on their walls and distributing them at "Free Huey" rallies.

9. "I Am A Man" Poster In March 1968, after the accidental deaths of two local African-American sanitation workers, the black community in Memphis, Tennessee prepared a major strike to fight for their right to unionize. Placards bearing the words "I Am A Man" in bold red letters were printed for the sanitation workers strike, which was held on April 3rd. It was there, before the 1,300 workers gathered at the Mason Temple in Memphis, that Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech. The following day, the civil rights icon was assassinated. Dr. King's riveting final speech and the memory of the posters bearing the words "I Am A Man" continue to inspire civil rights activists.

10. "Give Her Of The Fruit" Women's Suffrage Poster Designed by Buffalo, New York native Evelyn Rumsey Carey in 1905, this poster supporting women's right to vote depicts an ethereal, almost celestial figure emerging from the earth like a tree, with her hands outstretched and her fingers intertwined with tree branches and ripe fruits. Behind her is an image of the White House and written underneath are the words," Give her of the fruit of her hands and let her own works praise her in the gates." The poster was one of the most prominent visuals utilized in the women's suffrage movement.

11. Barack Obama "HOPE" Poster No image was as closely linked to Barack Obama's presidential campaign as this red, white, and blue poster by street artist Shepard Fairey. The poster, which was first circulated in early 2008, seemed to encapsulate everything the Obama campaign represented: progress, change and, above all, hope. Unfortunately, Fairey hasn't been able to fully enjoy the poster's success as he's been embroiled in a yearlong copyright suit over his unauthorized usage of an Associated Press photo to create Obama's likeness on the poster. Fairey's case took a turn for the worse when, in October of 2009, he admitted he lied to the courts and destroyed evidence linking his work to the AP photo. No outcome has been determined yet.
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posterboy said...

Oh, such a good start. I am sure I can't leave URL's in this message, but worth looking at my Docs Populi site about this material. A few errors - the "Rosie" image displayed is not Rockwell's magazine cover; the two often get mixed up. The "Unity in our love of man" was one of hundreds produced during at UC Berkeley specifically during the spring of 1970, as also happened at many campuses. And the "I Am a Man" is really a placard (meant to be carried), not a poster (affixed to a public surface) - the distinction is important, because political posters as a form were victims of anticommunism between 1945 and 1965.

Anonymous said...

There are people whom I admire but you do not have posters. Nora Oretaga, e.g., who was the Sandinista ambassador the to the U.N.; Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt. How about these women?

signs California said...

Indeed, these are very historical posters. Images are really very effective message conveyors. These just give words more emphasis that eventually gets people off their feet. Even in our modern times, pictures are still widely used not only for political purposes but also for advertisements. Thank you for sharing.

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