top row from left: Brooke Southerland, Ian Hills, Kevin Diggs. second row from left: Morgan Owen, Andrew Mabini, Danielle Tobin.
“No one really knows why they are alive until they know what they’d die for.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Just love the hell out of everybody.”
—John Lewis, Congressman
Design has tremendous power to create social change. As a long-time instructor at PC, I am always looking for ways to help my students find this empowering voice. In one of the seminal moments of the struggle for Civil Rights, my students and I found both the inspiration and a powerful call to action: One that taught us about how history reverberates through time, recedes and then returns to the public consciousness. How can we, as designers and art directors, give visual voice to some of the biggest issues that face our society?
This spring marked the 50th anniversary of the marches to Selma and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. During Winter Quarter of 2015 my Message and Content class (a foundation class focusing on expressing powerful content visually, through design) began what was initially a two week project: Creating a poster commemorating this event, one of the most moving of the civil rights era, for the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. The project turned into a nine week exploration into the history and ramifications of the Selma marches and the Voting Rights Act.
The idea for this design project began last summer. My family had just made an 11 hour road trip to the beach. My husband and daughter and even the dog went to sleep as it was late. Still wound up from the drive, I was not ready for bed and decided to watch a documentary about the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s that was airing on CNN. I knew some of the story of the Civil Rights struggle in the 1960’s but I soon realized that I did not know very much. I had not fully understood the brutality people had endured to earn the right to vote nor the noble strength needed to fight ingrained racism. I knew our Congressman, John Lewis, had played a major role in the movement and that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called Atlanta home. How did these men and so many other men and women manage to stay non-violent when confronted with such brutality? How did they find the strength to continue to face outright hate with love for their fellow man?
In particular, the story of what happened in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965 riveted my attention. The SCLC, led by Lewis planned a march to Montgomery to protest the lack of civil and voting rights for African Americans. Alabama’s governor, George Wallace swore to stop the march. It was a Sunday and as Lewis and the marchers were crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge near Selma, the group encountered state troopers with tear gas and civilian men on horses wielding clubs and whips. The marchers were ordered to stop while on the bridge. When they peacefully walked forward they were met with unimaginable violence. I screamed aloud: the footage in the documentary was so brutal and hateful. National television news reporters captured footage of the marchers being tear-gassed, whipped, clubbed and attacked. Lewis was one of the first marchers to step forward on the bridge. He was beaten and his skull fractured. Watching the footage from the march, it was hard simply to breathe. News of this brutality reached far beyond Alabama and pierced the nation’s consciousness.
Despite the violence and the risk, plans to march from Selma to Montgomery continued. On March 18, 1965 a federal district judge sanctioned a second protest along the route. While people in Alabama were furious, and Wallace refused to spend any state funds to provide protection for the demonstrators, President Johnson countered Wallace by federalizing the Alabama National Guard. The second march began on March 21. In Washington congresspeople of both parties called for legislation to stop the violence in the South and guarantee voting rights for all citizens. In the summer of 1965 President Johnson would submit to Congress the Voting Rights Act, signed into law that August.
I could not stop thinking about this documentary and how to visually interpret the anniversary of these events. I watched more footage of the Bloody Sunday March as well as video of President Johnson’s speech to Congress following the violence in Selma. Then I watched video of Martin Luther King’s speech following the successful march from Selma to Montgomery. After the documentary ended, I continued to think about the Selma marches. In some ways it seemed our society had come far but other events made it seem we may not have come far enough. What was the legacy of this landmark legislation, about to celebrate its 50th anniversary? What is the relevance of this legislation in today’s social and political climate? I started to put together a visual project, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the march and the passage of the Voting Rights Act with a poster for the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. I did not know that in just over a month a police shooting in Ferguson would bring civil unrest to a Missouri town or that a major movie release, Selma would come to theaters just as I was bringing the assignment to my Winter Quarter Message and Content class.
My students got to experience the film as well as a visit to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights which had opened in downtown Atlanta just six months before. We were all stunned by the experience of touring the exhibits. The way the audio and visual historical materials were presented made the viewer a participant rather than merely an observer. In one area, a 1950s -era lunch counter invites viewers to experience a sit-in. Wearing headphones we experienced the sounds of taunting, were ordered to get out, heard glass breaking behind us, menacing whispers and even the stool shaking as if someone were kicking it. Our challenge was to maintain our composure as long as possible. My class and I found the Center to be a powerful learning and emotional experience. The discipline with which these men and women approached Civil Rights, as a non-violent movement for social change was staggering. There were dress codes for the protesters: everybody in their Sunday best, with impeccable manners. Members of the movement read and were inspired by Gandhi and practiced how to react to angry counter-protestors in repeated drills. Afterwards the class gathered for a question and answer session with Director of Exhibitions and Design at the Center, David Mandel (PC 2009). Mandel told students about how his previous experience working with museums combined with his design education at PC led to an opportunity at the Center and graciously spent more than an hour answering student questions.
How did they find the strength to continue to face outright hate with love for their fellow man?
Now enlightened, my students had the challenge of transmitting this experience into visual form: a poster that would speak powerfully. As one of my teachers once told me: “A great poster should make you want to cross the street to get closer.” Designers have only seconds to get this response. It became clear that getting it right would require more than two weeks. Thus the project grew to a quarter-long exploration from initial research through many iterations and concepts. It was a challenge to communicate a whole movement powerfully and quickly. I kept asking the students “Do these visuals communicate visually with your intended audience?” “Do we understand the story you are telling quickly and visually? As designers and art directors, our work must stand alone, without explanation.
My students’ research and hard work paid off with some great posters. The result of the project exceeded even my high expectations. Each students found a way to express the power and emotion of this event—all solutions different but each capturing a moment of change in our national history. Solutions like juxtaposition of current and historical images, using newspaper clippings from the actual event to create a symbol of peace, to using layered typography and a powerful quote are just some of the novel ways students captured the importance of this moment of social change.