Shaping Social Movements through the Arts

Throughout our nation’s history, art has played a valuable role in propelling social justice movements forward while inspiring hope and celebrating our shared humanity. From Women’s Suffrage to Civil Rights to the United Farm Workers to Black Lives Matter, artists of all disciplines have amplified causes that give voice to marginalized groups and reveal systems of injustice to inspire positive change. Music, murals, graphic posters, political cartoons, spoken word and other forms of artistic expression have created spaces that bring awareness to social causes and build community. Today we’re sharing some of the inspiring ways art has become a tool for activism and the way it has helped shape social movements in the U.S.

Reshaping perceptions of women’s suffrage through posters and cartoons


“Bugler Girl” by Caroline Watts (1908)

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment, which secured a woman’s right to vote in the U.S. The campaign for women’s suffrage began in the early 1900s and involved the efforts of countless women, including female artists and cartoonists who advanced the suffrage agenda by conveying a collective narrative through their art. The movement’s bold banners, posters and political cartoons helped challenge the prevailing view of the times that a woman’s place was exclusively in the home. Posters were a relatively new form of mass communication and became an effective tool to deliver the movement’s messages to the masses. The allegorical bugler, calling her “troops” to battle in this 1908 “Women’s Suffrage March and Mass-Meeting” poster by British illustrator Caroline Watts, shows how strong female imagery was used to call together women who were ready to challenge the status quo. Watts first created her iconic “Bugler Girl” poster to promote the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies’ June demonstrations in London. This illustration was such a success, it was selected to become the logo of the British newspaper The Suffragette and was later borrowed by the women’s suffrage movement here in the U.S. Used to promote the National American Suffrage Association’s March 3, 1913 parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C., Watts’ memorable poster helped mobilize over 5,000 suffragettes in the nation’s capital.

Allender PC67: September 1920, No Caption. ["Victory."]

“Victory” by Nina Allender (1920)

Political cartoons published in newspapers and magazines were another accessible form of artistic expression that are credited with advancing the goals of suffragists during this era. The Kansas-based artist, cartoonist and women’s rights activist Nina Allender created political cartoons to counter anti-suffrage propaganda that depicted suffragists as unfeminine, undesirable and bitter. Allender instead created drawings with political satire that portrayed suffragists as young, bright and active women who were part of a new, hopeful generation unafraid to challenge authority. From 1914-27, she created nearly 300 political cartoons that helped reshape the view of women and suffragettes among both the public and the media, with perhaps the most famous being “Victory,” the popular 1920 cartoon showing a woman flying a victory banner in celebration of the passage of the 19th amendment. 

Empowering art of freedom during the Civil Rights movement
The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which aimed to end our nation’s institutionalized discrimination, segregation and violence toward Black people, called for equal rights and protections under the law. This era’s surge of activism was marked by non-violent protests and acts of targeted civil disobedience, such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Freedom Rides and the Greensboro Woolworth Sit-Ins. The movement also ushered in a massive wave of artistic expression to communicate the issues and ideals of the movement. Artists like Jacob Lawrence, Mahalia Jackson and David Hammons created powerful paintings, music and sculptures that amplified the movement’s fight for equality. For example, Lawrence’s celebrated 1962 painting “Soldiers and Students” depicts a group of Black students accompanied by three armed guards, surrounded by a group of angry protesters attempting to block their entry into a school. The painting poignantly captures the determination and courage of Black students trying to exercise their right to a fair and equal education.

In addition, spirituals, gospel and folk music played an especially important role in mobilizing and giving voice to the civil rights movement. “The freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle,” said Martin Luther King in 1961. There’s perhaps no better example than the 1960 gospel anthem “We Shall Overcome,” a song out of the Highlander Folk School where activists trained in philosophy of nonviolence. Rooted in the past yet relevant to the times, the song embodied the strength and determination of civil rights protestors. With lyrics such as “We’ll walk hand in hand,” “We are not afraid,” and “I do believe we shall overcome some day,” this song of freedom offered courage, comfort and hope as protestors confronted prejudice and hate in the battle for equal rights. “We Shall Overcome,” along with songs like “Tree of Life” and “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” became the heart, soul and soundtrack of the movement, sung by protestors across the country.

Seeding bold visuals during the United Farm Workers movement


“Boycott Grapes, Support the United Farmworkers Union” by Xavier Viramontes (1973)

Much like the women’s suffrage movement, the United Farm Workers movement which launched in the 1960s leveraged visual art to give form to the challenges that inspired farm workers to demand improved wages and working conditions. During their fight for labor rights, the United Farm Workers (UFW), a California-based labor union serving predominately Spanish-speaking members, launched an impactful “Viva La Huelga” (or “Long Live the Strike”) poster campaign that featured memorable works like Xavier Viramontes’ “Boycott Grapes, Support the United Farm Workers Union” (1973). As a California-based painter, printmaker and pioneer of the Chicano Art Movement, Viramontes has dedicated his prolific career to creating socially-charged art that speaks out against injustice. His commitment to highlighting local issues led him to create a poster for the grape boycott that depicts a dark brown, god-like Aztec figure squeezing grapes with blood running down his hands, symbolizing the blood and sweat of farm workers. California-based Andrew Zermeño, another distinguished UFW movement artist, played a critical role during the Delano Grape Strike. After working closely with leaders of the United Farm Workers movement, Zermeño became an active graphic designer of strike posters that supported the UFW’s cause.


“HUELGA!” by Andrew Zermeño (1965)

Zermeño’s 1965 “HUELGA!” or (“STRIKE!”) poster, which depicts a member of the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee carrying the UFW flag and shouting “huelga,” was successful in urging viewers toward action. The graphics in this poster campaign, which were plastered on walls and distributed as placards, empowered and solidified workers’ commitment to the movement and delivered the movement’s ideas to broad audiences. These posters called for action within and beyond the 80,000 UFW’s members. A 1975 Harris poll estimated that the national poster campaign inspired 17 million Americans to boycott grapes out of support for the farm workers. Lasting from 1965-1970, the Delano Grape Strike became one of the largest strikes in American history and resulted in a collective bargaining agreement with major grape growers that paved the way for increased wages, better working conditions and paid vacation days for workers. Beyond promoting the strike and boycott, the UFW movement posters covered a range of topics, including racism, child labor and immigrant rights-issues that communities of color still face today.

Envisioning equity through the art of the Black Lives Matter movement
Artistic expression continues to be at the forefront in today’s fight against systemic racism and violence as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. Formed in 2013 by Black organizers Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, the movement came to life in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who killed Trayvon Martin. Now a member-led global network that has mobilized millions of people in the U.S, the Black Lives Matter movement serves as “an affirmation of Black folk’s humanity, their contributions to society, and their resilience in the face of deadly oppression.” With renewed intensity this past summer as people flooded the streets in solidarity with Black lives as a result of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, art continues to drive the conversation forward around the social constructs that perpetuate inequality. We see it in protest posters, homemade yard-signs and City-generated crosswalk art declaring “Black Lives Matter,” and community-led murals commemorating those who have been killed.


Charlotte, N.C., Black Lives Matter street art (2020); Photo by Alex Orellana

Bold pieces like the recently completed, collaborative 148-foot mural outside the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles, painted by Black artists Alexandra Allie Belisle, Amanda Ferrell Hale, Noah Humes, PeQue Brown and Shplinton, celebrate the resilience of Black lives and sustain the movement’s momentum by bringing attention to the racial injustices faced by the Black community. We also see moving visuals in performative pieces like JusticeLA’s recent installation of 100 jail beds by 200 activists in “L.A County jail” orange-colored shirts, installed to oppose the expansion of the Los Angeles County jail system, the largest jail system in the world.


Laugh Factory, Los Angeles, Black Lives Matter mural by Alexandra Allie Belisle, Amanda Ferrell Hale, Noah Humes, PeQue Brown and Shplinton (2020); Photo by Paulo Murillo, courtesy of WEHO TIMES

The call for justice goes beyond visual art to music and poetry, for example songs like Tobe Nwigwe’s “I Need You To,” which calls for justice for Breonna Taylor, or in Brandon Leake’s recent “America’s Got Talent” performance, a heart-wrenching spoken-word piece dedicated to his mother. Beyond communicating messages of social justice, the art and music used throughout the Black Lives Matter movement calls for political action. The imagery featured in murals, posters, installations, music and spoken-word poetry aims to communicate the need for real systemic change to institutions that oppress and marginalize Black people, imperative change that goes beyond a symbolic recognition of how Black lives matter.

Art as a driver for social transformation
From the women’s suffrage movement’s political cartoons to community-made Black Lives Matter murals calling for systematic change to racial injustices, art in its many forms has driven social transformation throughout history. The arts have the power to inspire people to embrace and participate in civic action, changing the world we live in. Art helps us reflect, learn and visualize the potential for our community, nation and world, which is often the first step toward building a society that is more aware, inclusive and just. Whether through posters, paintings, music or spoken word, art can serve as a tool for activism and social empowerment. As Nelson Mandela once said, “It is in your hands to make of our world a better one for all.”


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