Civil Rights Censorship: A New History of the Civil Rights Movement’s Fight for Racial Representation and the NAACP's Anti-blackface Propaganda Campaign

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 8:30 AM
Grant Park Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Rhae Lynn Barnes, Princeton University
This paper establishes a new history of the American Civil Rights Movement’s fight for racial representation by focusing on the NAACP's anti-blackface propaganda campaign that took place between World War II and 1970. The larger project, from which this paper is derived, establishes both the cultural origins and political consequences of amateur blackface minstrelsy and recaptures its print culture, which despite being its most abundant evidence, is still unstudied. Using newly declassified government archives, restricted fraternal order documents previously only accessible to white male members, oral histories with Civil Rights workers, and other untapped print ephemera that I cataloged into a bibliographic database, this paper reinterprets our understandings of the use of print media and written forms of protest in the Civil Rights movement to censor caricatured anti-African American images and blackface stereotypes distributed to soldiers stationed in the Pacific and in desegregated schools in the American North and West. Using the life of Betty Reid Soskin—a black World War II Rosie the Riveter in the context of the Great Migration who joined the Civil Rights movement in 1953—this paper argues the representational politics of minstrel shows were vital to the struggle for Civil Rights in the mid-twentieth century. Between 1940 and 1970, the NAACP, CORE, and allied organizations coordinated anti-blackface protests and legal cases that became decisive battlegrounds where African Americans fought to destroy white supremacy in public schools and the United States military by turning to censorship to ban blackface print and plays. This paper seeks to redefine our understanding of minstrelsy’s genre, periodization, geographic scope, participants, and political power, putting blackface back at the center of American life, and the concerned mothers who became the foot soldiers to stop this racist history that dominated American popular culture through 1970.
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