PROTESTING PICTURES

Acknowledging the harmfulness to African Americans of stereotypes—and their ability to perpetuate white people’s racism by implying their superiority—civil rights leaders and organizations began to openly refute negative imagery.

In 1947, for example, the unaffiliated protests of the NAACP, the National Negro Congress, Ebony, and other institutions and individuals against Song of the South—the Disney studio’s paean to plantation life and black subservience in the Old South—helped educate the public to the problem at hand. Ebony, the most widely circulated African American picture magazine of the time, ran a two-page photo-editorial on Song of the South, declaring it "lily-white propaganda" that "disrupted peaceful race relations." Media-savvy crusaders saw the film as a perfect target: aggressively marketed and widely reviewed, Song of the South was Disney’s first box-office hit since the end of World War II.

These protests anticipated an important tactic in the modern civil rights movement: the skillful, calculated use of the media to draw attention to the racism perpetuated by the media itself.


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The Birth of a Nation, 1915
The Birth of a Nation, 1915
The Birth of a Nation, 1915
DVD
The NAACP’s proactive campaign against racist imagery can be traced back to its beginning in 1909. In 1915, the association organized a national protest against The Birth of a Nation, an epic silent film about the aftermath of the Civil War, directed by D. W. Griffith. The picture—a faithful adaptation of The Clansman (1905), a much-reviled novel by Thomas Dixon, a white-supremacist Baptist minister—portrayed the end of slavery and Reconstruction as utter failures and the Ku Klux Klan as the savior of an imperiled white race.

The film was hailed by mainstream critics as extremely innovative and was immensely popular with white audiences. The NAACP, to counter this support, published a cycle of scathing reviews, written by W. E. B. Du Bois in The Crisis. And through its Boston chapter it issued a forty-seven-page booklet, Fighting a Vicious Film: Protest Against The Birth of a Nation. Proclaiming the film "three miles of filth," the booklet challenged its veracity and motives, in words that would echo in the association’s criticism of Song of the South: "The producers of the film do not hesitate to resort to the meanest vilification of the Negro race, to pervert history, and to use the most subtle form of untruth—a half truth."
Protest Against Song of the South: Paramount Theater, Oakland, April 2, 1947
Protest Against Song of the South: Paramount Theater, Oakland, April 2, 1947
M. L. Cohen
Protest Against Song of the South: Paramount Theater, Oakland, April 2, 1947 Gelatin silver print
8 x 10 in.
Collection of Oakland Museum of California, Gift of Mr. Martin J. Cooney
Local civil rights groups picketed movie theaters in a number of American cities. On April 2, 1947, in downtown Oakland, California, protesters marched outside the Paramount Theater, bearing signs that read "We want films on Democracy, not slavery" and "Don’t prejudice children’s minds with films like this." The popularity of Song of the South guaranteed media coverage of the demonstrations.
The Amos ’n Andy Show, 1951
The Amos ’n Andy Show, 1951
In a crusade against negative black imagery in the media, the NAACP, in the early 1950s, turned its attention to the popular new medium of television, speaking out against two programs it deemed particularly offensive: The Beulah Show and the first television series with an all-black cast, The Amos ’n Andy Show, a situation comedy about a dialect-talking, self-deprecating businessman and his shiftless business partner. The show emphasized vulgar character types—a dim-witted Uncle Tom; a crooked, scheming businessman; a dithering, listless janitor; and a nosy, loud-mouthed Mama.
Letter from Effie Combs to Mayor Sam M. Wassell of Little Rock, Arkansas, April 12, 1950
Letter from Effie Combs to Mayor Sam M. Wassell of Little Rock, Arkansas, April 12, 1950
The campaign against stereotypes was not confined to the demonstrations and boycotts led by national civil rights organizations. In this letter and accompanying newspaper clippings, a resident of Little Rock, urges the city’s mayor to appoint a "censor board" to regulate negative images that "exploit the Negro race."
Letter from Effie Combs to Mayor Sam M. Wassell of Little Rock, Arkansas, April 12, 1950
Two pages, 11 1/16 x 8 7/16 in. each
Collection of Civil Rights Archive/CADVC-UMBC, Baltimore, Maryland, 2005.184