Publisher John H. Johnson and the 1964 Civil Rights Act

The civil rights movement received a major victory in the fight for equality with the passage of the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964.

Initiated by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, the bill was designed to outlaw racial discrimination and segregation in public places. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill into law in 1964, ensuring legal protection against voting registration and employment inequality for African Americans and women.

(The stamp above, which features a detail from “Dixie Café” by Jacob Lawrence, was issued in 2005 as part of the To More A More Perfect Union stamp pane.)

As the trailblazing publisher of Ebony, Jet, and other magazines aimed primarily at an African-American audience, John H. Johnson, whose stamp was issued earlier this year, was uniquely situated to comment on and influence prevailing American culture.  Ebony in particular played an important role in the civil rights movement, by providing important coverage of protest marches and other events. Even during tension-filled times in the Deep South, photographers from Ebony—white or black, depending on the circumstances—were on the scene to capture the news.

It’s no surprise, then, that the President sought out Johnson in early 1964, before the passage of the Civil Rights Act. What was the President after? In short, support from the black media for his efforts against racial discrimination. “As soon as I crossed the threshold, the president started talking,” wrote Johnson, “telling me what he had done and was doing for Black people and that he didn’t see why Jet was always criticizing his administration and picking at this and that.”

Johnson promised the President would receive only fair coverage in his magazines.

After that first meeting, the President began to meet regularly with Johnson and other African-American publishers. In fact, Johnson and the President became friends. “I was invited to the White House so many times,” he later wrote, “I was embarrassed to tell my friends.”

Johnson says little about the Civil Rights Act in his 1989 autobiography, Succeeding Against the Odds. But the impact of his publications on the civil rights movement in the 1960s and vice versa, before and after its passage, is clear. “I must have been doing something right,” he stated with modesty, “for my leading magazines reached all-time highs in the sixties, and we received unprecedented acclaim in the Black and White communities. When we celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Ebony in November 1965, Ebony was selling 900,000 copies a month, and its three sister magazines, Jet, Tan, and Negro Digest, were selling a total of 2.3 million copies a month.”

Wow!

Intrigued and want to learn more about John H. Johnson? Try the Cultural Diary for biographical information, a timeline, quotations, and other goodies, including a full pane of stamps!

Tackling Complex Issues with Bold Simplicity: The Art of Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence’s artistic achievement is dazzling and prodigious. Consider this: Before the age of 25, and within a span of four years, he created three narrative series of paintings on the lives of notable heroes in black culture (Toussaint L’Overture, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and John Brown) and an ambitious artistic rendering of the plight of many blacks in America between the two world wars,

the popular and career-making The Migration of the Negro. Combined these series total more than 160 individual paintings. Lawrence continued to make art, chronicling the experiences of Blacks in America, until he died in June 2000—more than sixty years of creative output, energy, and vision.

In 2005 the Postal Service issued To Form a More Perfect Union, a set of stamps to commemorate the benchmark events of the Civil Rights Movement. Lawrence’s 1948 brush and ink drawing “Dixie Café” was selected to represent the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial segregation and other forms of discrimination.

“Dixie Café” presents familiar elements of Lawrence’s style. Bold graphic lines form a tableau of figures populating a shallow space; a format he used throughout his career.  Among the many varied sources he said inspired his work, Lawrence admired and looked at popular comics, such as “Katzenjammer Kids” and “Maggie and Jigs.” Like a comic strip, “Dixie Café” is economical in detail, both in terms of composition and color. It’s remarkable how clearly an episode of racial segregation in conveyed by a simple series of bold lines and strategically placed text. As is so often the case in Lawrence’s work, he relies on a minimum of means to produce maximum impact.

We have one First Day of Issue ceremony program to give away to a lucky winner today. As usual, though, you’ve got to show us what you know. Jacob Lawrence’s “Dixie Café” appears on the 1964 Civil Rights Act stamp. What kinds of discrimination did the law prohibit? Send your answer to uspsstamps at gmail dot com. One person will be chosen at random to receive the ceremony program with the Jacob Lawrence stamp on it. Deadline for entries is Friday, February 3, at 10 a.m. EST. Good luck!