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.”


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!

More Than 50 Years of Integrated Public Schools

Racial segregation was the unchallenged norm in American public schools until May 17, 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling in the case of Brown v. Board of Education declaring that separate educational facilities for black and white children are inherently unequal. The case was initiated in Topeka, Kansas, where Oliver Brown and several other parents filed a suit against the local board of education on behalf of their children, many of whom were forced to travel long distances to school. Their case was consolidated with other, similar ones and argued before the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., by Thurgood Marshall, who later became the Court’s first African-American justice.

This stamp appeared on the To Form a More Perfect Union pane, which was issued in 2005 and recognized the courage and achievement of the men and women who, during the years of the civil rights movement, struggled to bring the vision of our nation’s founders closer to reality. The stamp art is a detail from “The Lamp” by Romare Bearden. In 1984, the NAACP selected the lithograph to be on a poster celebrating the 30th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Today We Take a Stand Against Racism

Today is the fifth annual Stand Against Racism—a movement that aims to shed light on the pervasive forms of racism that still exist in our country and eliminate them by celebrating our diversity.

In August 1963, during the height of the civil rights movement, more than 250,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., to demand racial justice. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to the crowd on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, driving home the importance of racial equality with optimistic hope for the future.

We’ve come a long way since then, but there is still more work to be done. By raising awareness of the injustices enacted upon our fellow citizens every day, Stand Against Racism dreams of the same world Dr. King did in 1963.

Issued as part of the To Form a More Perfect Union pane in 2005, the stamp art is a detail from “March on Washington” by Alma Thomas.

Bruce Davidson Captured the Spirit of the Civil Rights Era

Among the striking artworks included on the 2005 To Form a More Perfect Union stamp pane is a black-and-white photograph by celebrated photographer Bruce Davidson.

“Youths on the Selma March,” which Davidson shot 40 years earlier in 1965, engages the viewer immediately. Two young activists stare unflinchingly into the camera. They represent the defiance and determination of citizens fighting for civil rights, and their youthfulness reveals—and speaks to—the hope of a generation.

Louis Plummer, the project’s photo researcher, reviewed dozens of photographs and works of art to give the designer a strong selection of images to consider for each stamp.

“When I am looking for a successful image to be used as a stamp, I want it to tell a story,” Plummer said. “I thought this photograph could tell a story, conveying meaning in a direct and powerful way.”

As art director for this culturally and politically significant pane, Ethel Kessler described the experience as “more like curating an exhibition. It was relatively easy to find [paintings] that directly illustrated the milestones of the Civil Rights Movement. Photography added a new dimension—an immediacy—I felt was important for the subject.

“Bruce Davidson’s photos from the civil rights era in American history prove the point of the power of photography. His pictures really speak for themselves,” Kessler said. “Looking directly into the eyes of these young men, you can see the future literally written on their faces.”

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!