Ryan Jung is a returning Fullerton college student after dropping out in 2000 promptly after discovering rock climbing. Since then his love of high places has fueled his vagabond, nomadic lifestyle. He has called San Francisco, Yosemite Valley, Moab UT, and various locations in Idaho, his home, all more than once. His refusal to pay rent (winters exempted) has allowed him to travel to several different countries, mostly in Asia (many during winter). Currently he is pursuing a Bachelors of Science in Nursing during regular semesters. Ryan returns to Stanley, Idaho every summer where he guides rock climbing with Sawtooth Mountain Guides.
After one too many nights sleeping in his car he decided he needed to return to school to train for a job that pays better and is considering paying rent year round. If you can't find him studying or working, he might be keeping company with some lonely point break down in Baja, on top of a surfboard.
In 1949, Pittsburgh, Charles Harris snapped a black and white photograph of a political advertisement mounted on a billboard on the side of the road in Pennsylvania. In the photograph, there is a cartoon image of a little girl with her mouth agape in fear, and she is holding a doll in one hand. The doll is black. The girl is standing on the right side of the billboard, and on the left side, there are two very large, evil looking hands reaching out for her. The text at the top of the billboard reads “Make our Homes and Streets SAFE!” and below the illustration is the message, “VOTE REPUBLICAN.” Beside this bold text, there is a ballot box with an X. The photograph was taken from right of center by Harris, a staff photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the oldest black newspapers in the nation. Harris's powerful images span five decades and are considered to be Pittsburgh's best documentation of the Hill district, a largely black neighborhood that began its growth when runaway slaves made their first major stop along the Underground Railroad north of the Mason Dixon line.
[Photo: Charles "Teenie" Harris/Pittsburgh Courier Archives]
Reactions to this political advertisement can range from laughter to anger, based on the extreme nature of its message. Response to the imagery will vary by what American generation you are, what geographic area you grew up in, and your life experiences and ethnicity. Despite reactions to this photo in the present, it is clear that the marketers of the billboard had intended the blatant imagery and text to convey a threat in order to scare viewers into voting Republican for the 1948 elections. In the year that the ad was erected, perception of the implied threat would have varied among individual viewers based upon their own personal experiences, education, formative years, and knowledge of current events. Underneath the explicit message, “Voting for an alternative party will endanger our safety,” is an implied message. It is subtle, but it is there; the message, directed towards white voters, basically says, “Your dominance in society is threatened without us (Republicans) in office.”
To understand the implicit content of the message, it is useful to examine the social issues of 1948, an election year when the civil rights movement was in its infancy. During this time nationally as well as in Pittsburgh, our country was beginning to undergo desegregation. Thomas Dewey, a Republican, was running against incumbent democrat Harry Truman, with third-party splinter candidate Strom Thurmond splitting the vote (TrumanLibrary.org). Blatant racism was common in America, and the idea of integration was intimidating to many white Americans. In the Hill District-sub division of Pittsburgh where this photo was likely taken, plans to tear down most of the buildings were being formulated. City councilman George E. Evans stated that “the buildings ...[were] sub-standard, and [had] long out lived their usefulness...there would be no social loss if they were all destroyed”(The Hill District: History). Residents of the Hill District held a view that the plans were set to make a “neutral zone” between black and white areas (Korol). In the south, Georgian Senator Herman Talmadge campaigned hotly on a platform of explicit white supremacy, stating that he won his '48 election on “as white a primary as possible” which introduced a legislative plan to secure white dominance in the state of Georgia (Tuck).
The Democratic party at this time was fragmenting, as progressives like Truman began to tackle racial inequities. Truman became president after Franklin D. Roosevelt died three months into his fourth term, in 1946, and put together a committee on civil rights. Early in 1948, near the end of his first term, President Truman submitted the committee's findings to Congress and detailed his plans for a large comprehensive civil rights reform; these actions by executive order started the nation's march toward equality. The report included four essential rights: the right to personal safety; the right to citizenship and its privileges; the right to freedom of conscience and expression; and the right to equality and opportunity (TrumanLibrary.org). In 1944, Pennsylvania had
voted to re-elect FDR, but in the election of '48 Truman lost the state to Republican Thomas Dewey.
When viewed within the context of the political climate of the time, this billboard suggests that the Republican party in Pennsylvania played upon the anxiety within Democratic voters about the shift their party was beginning to make. Strom Thurmond, when he saw the Democratic party leaning towards desegregation, started his own southern offshoot from the party and dubbed himself a “Dixiecrat” (TrumanLibrary.org). Michael R. Gardner, a communications policy attorney in Washington D.C. and former professor at Georgetown University, highlights that it was Truman's actions that made the the Civil Rights Movement of the 60's possible, in his book chronicling the movement (Harry Truman And Civil Rights). The internal dissidence evidenced by Strom Thurmond's split with the party illustrates the profound changes that Truman initiated in U.S. policy. Fear of integration of blacks into an intensely separate white society was used not only by the so-called Dixiecrats, but also by the Republicans during the election of '48, in order to get the white vote. Change is often viewed with fear in a society, and fear is always easily manipulated by politicians for their own agenda. Through its subtle and not so subtle use of imagery, this billboard is a prime example of using society's fear for political advantage.
In terms of specific imagery, the largest component of the cartoon is the two dark hands, with sharp, pointed, thick fingernails, reaching out hawk-like towards the smaller Caucasian girl and her doll. The message here is quite explicit: the hands represent the alternative choice to the Republican party, the Democrats. They are portrayed monstrously in order to demonize the alternative choice, the Democrats. They are also the largest features in the illustration. They draw in the eye and attract viewers to begin taking in both the explicit and implied message. They are the hook in the visual essay. Once viewers begin to examine the hands, they are left with the rest to analyze, the text and the white girl with her black doll.
At first glance, the presence of a doll in the image might seem trivial. After all, she could be holding any toy, but she is not. The girl is holding a black doll, and this is by no means an accident. This black doll implies that African-Americans are playthings, a subordinate ethnic group under the control of whites.
There are several layers of implicit messaging here that are only revealed to one viewer group at a time, unless they examine the image with a critical eye from more than one perspective, as Harris probably did when he photographed it. One implied message is that the hands represent the Democrats rearranging social hierarchies with their introduction of equal rights, robbing the whites of their privileges over blacks. To undecided voters the message suggests that equality and desegregation will be an unsafe act, and if they vote Republican, they will be sheltered from this dangerous change.
The most interesting perspective as to what the billboard suggests is easy to miss unless the viewer has ever experienced a shakedown, or been coerced by a social group. To voters who were in favor of equal rights or seeking change, the image in combination with the text sends an implied message similar to mob extortion: pay protection fees or else. In this case in particular, the message seems to read, “vote for us or else we will see to it that your homes and streets will be made unsafe.” The fact that the Hill district was slated to be eradicated from the city is very significant when combined with this latter suggestion. There was a real threat. Plans had already been set in motion to tear down many of buildings in the Hill District, and in 1955, government loans were approved for the lower Hill District to be demolished. In 1956, 1,300 structures were destroyed. As a result, 1,239 black family's were forced to relocate, while only 312 white families were displaced (The Hill District: History). Whether or not this was connected to the way the Hill district voted is irrelevant, but it does illustrate the atmosphere of the time and the realities faced by those who sought to change the status quo. Life was not easy for many minorities living in an atmosphere where oppression was not considered as much of an injustice as it is today. It is due to this that such propaganda was effective, in terms of using threats to keep those on the bottom of the social hierarchy from standing up for themselves.
When faced with this type of carefully crafted advertising, with the intent to persuade, each viewer walks away with a slightly different internalized message. In addition, it is not apparent to all viewers that more than one message is being sent. This is the power of using implied messaging: more than one message can be sent to multiple audiences without literally stating the actual content that each individual absorbs.
Furthermore, many viewers may not even know that they have been influenced (or offended) by the messages like this one because they do not really stop and critically examine each component of the text and imagery. This is an important skill in the political arena; you do not want to offend one audience attempting to gain favor of another. So when approaching a delicate subject, skilled rhetoricians will imply their stance on the issue to avoid conflict with any apposing groups rather than isolating themselves by explicitly stating their opinion.
Those who put together the billboard were correct that superiority over African Americans would be lost if policies of equality were set. President Truman gave the Civil Rights Movement enough momentum to keep it from stalling all the way into the 21st century, primarily with the desegregation of the military and the elimination of poll taxes. Those who enjoyed an unequal power over others on the basis of skin color, recoiled in fear, back pedaled and tried everything that they could to stop this momentum. This billboard, frozen in time by Harris, is a testament to their anxiety; those who seek to scare others into submission do so because they themselves are frightened.
Harris, Charles. Vote Republican. 1949. Pittsburgh Courier Archives, Pittsburgh. 6 Feb. 2009 http://www.pacificviews.org/weblog/archives/Pictures/vote_gop2.JPG.
“Harry Truman And Civil Rights.” Rev. of Harry Truman And Civil Rights, Moral Courage And Political Risk. Southern Illinois University Press. Dept. home page. Southern Illinois University. 22 Nov. 2008 http://www.siu.edu/~siupress/titles/s02_titles/gardner_truman.htm.
“The Hill District: History.” clpgh.org. 2008. Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. 22 Nov. 2008 http://www.clpgh.org/exhibit/neighborhoods/hill/hill_n4.html.
Korol, Paul S. “A Brief History Of The Hill (Pittsburgh History).” Ancestry.com. 4 Feb. 2002. 22 Nov. 2008 http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~njm1/hillhist.htm.
TrumanLibrary.org. Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. 22 Nov. 2008 http://www.trumanlibrary.org/teacher/campaign.htm.
TrumanLibray.org. 22 Nov. 2008
Tuck, Stephen G.N. Beyond Atlanta. University of Georgia Press, April 2003. 22 Nov. 2008 http://books.google.com/books?id=2y674_8pGXkC&pg=PA74&dq=talmadge+1948+e....