|Up Against the Wall
Berkeley posters from the 1960s
Exhibition at the Berkeley Historical Society
Curated and produced by Lincoln Cushing
Cataloged images viewable here ; links to specific posters described are linked by number.
These posters paved the way for a subsequent generation of artists and graphics shops, such as Kearny Street Workshop in San Francisco and Berkeley’s Inkworks Press. Even today, with the seductive miracle of the World Wide Web, artists are still putting ink to big paper. This exhibition honors the community that made these particular artifacts as well as encourages people to go out and make their own history.
The 1950’s was characterized by virulent anticommunism, a “normalization” of gender roles that had been briefly challenged during World War II, and general economic prosperity. But the nascent political activism of the early 1960s – the Civil Rights movement in the South and opposition to U.S. involvement in Viet Nam – were devoid of poster art. Even Berkeley’s world famous 1964 Free Speech Movement witnessed many cultural forms – poetry, song, chants, theater – but produced no posters. The large-format documents that were produced were basically placards, large cardboard signs with a slogan.
But by 1965 things began to change. The population spike of young people, along with tumultuous domestic and foreign events, drew upon a new generation of activists and artists, and the graphics began to blossom. Local musicians with a sense of social justice, such as Joe McDonald of Country Joe and the Fish, emerged and played at sympathetic local venues such as the Jabberwock . Some of these new bands, along with more established performers such as Pete Seeger , would perform at concerts to support the political groups. Veterans from the Civil Rights movement, such as Stokely Carmichael from the Committee for Lowndes County, brought their message to the Bay Area  and began building the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Many actions were bracketed by two sets of posters, the first for the event itself and the second for the defense of those later arrested.
Viet Nam Day, May 21-22, 1965, was the first big teach-in on the growing involvement of U.S. troops in that war . The Vietnam Day Committee benefit at U.C.  is a good example of the crude beginnings of what would flower as the Bay Area's pysychedelic style. This was followed by the peace vigil at Port Chicago during the summer of 1966  , the point of departure for Vietnam-bound war materiel (and also the site of a WWII tragedy involving the deaths of black sailors and their subsequent demand for justice). The Stop the Draft Week actions in 1967  took resistance to the draft and the war to new heights. And some political activists sought to take local control through the electoral process this poster from 1967  was just such an effort by the Community for a New Politics, with Bob Avakian (who would later go on to form the Revolutionary Communist Party).
At the same time, the counterculture – which was a broad expression of oppositional values, only some of which would be considered overtly political – was establishing a beachhead. Although the established narrative puts the epicenter of this movement in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, Berkeley was also a major locus. San Francisco rock concert flyers by fresh local talent were being gobbled up by a thirsty public. Underground newspapers such as the Berkeley Barb and the Berkeley Tribe, as well as comics provided new and cheap distribution for news, views, and graphics. The Print Mint set up shop on Telegraph Avenue in 1965, and was an important distribution point for the emerging new poster artists like Wes Wilson, whose "Are we next?'  was one of the first overtly political commercially-available posters. Artists banded together to form mail order distribution outlets such as Berkeley Bonaparte .
Students of color were fighting for relevant curriculum and respect, first at San Francisco State and later at U.C. Berkeley. The benefit concert at U.C was a fundraiser for faculty sisters and brothers on strike at S.F. State , and the Third World Liberation Front poster  was one of many announcing this movement at Berkeley. U.C-community relations reached a new low during negotiations around People’s Park, one poster  portraying Alameda County Sheriff Frank Madigan as a toadying Blue Meany from the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine,” another  capturing a more light-hearted bonding moment between National Guard troops and civilians. The theme of peaceful coexistence between armed forces and antiwar locals is repeated in the 4th of July poster  by Frank Cieciorka (creator of the earlier Stop the Draft Week icon) with belt buckles elegantly intertwined with typography. And local character Bill Miller’s run for City Council certainly represents the apex of in-your-face campaigning .
The Berkeley Liberation Program  expresses the wide range of issues that were being challenged. With the slogan “Power to the imagination – all power to the people” it fused utopian and concrete demands as one; the 13-points cover a range from affordable housing to the abolition of parking meters to marijuana cooperatives. The war continued to escalate, and many homes in Berkeley displayed “A home for peace” in their window .
February of 1970 saw the burning of the Isla Vista branch of the Bank of America branch (Santa Barbara), a dramatic act against U.S. capitalism. A detailed polemic on the back of this poster  details these charges. The May 4 National Guard killing of four student demonstrators at Kent State, as well as two students at Jackson State College (Mississippi) and the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, resulted in massive community response. Art students all over the country directed their energy to producing social change posters. In the East Bay, three workshops sprang up that created hundreds of graphics – East Bay Media at Laney College (as well as at a location on Grove Street), under the direction of veteran printmaker Frank Rowe; the Media Project at California College of Arts and Crafts (which soon moved to a residence in Berkeley), with experienced propagandist Bruce Kaiper; and the workshop  at the College of Environmental Design at U.C. Berkeley, guided by Malaquias Montoya. Many of the posters were exhibited in the then-new University Art Museum  as well as being reproduced as a fundraiser print folio Unite Against the War by U.C. art history professor Herschel B. Chipp. These posters reflected the renewed appreciation for the practicality of silk-screen printing, a commercial process rarely taught in art school. Many of the posters were printed on discarded tractor-feed computer paper.
Norman Orr was the youngest of the early artists who did work for Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium; his “Custer died for our sins”  was one of many posters produced and distributed by the Print Mint. One national campaign of the early environmental movement was to challenge the widespread use of the pesticide DDT; this independently-produced poster  illustrates the point with the 1910 limerick by Dixon Merritt.
U.C. Berkeley’s Gay Student Union hosted a Valentine’s Day dance, their second such event . The Berkeley Art Center hosted a benefit poetry reading  for White Panther radical activist John Sinclair, given a 10-year sentence in 1969 in Michigan for marijuana possession; by the end of 1971 he was released from prison when the state's marijuana statutes were ruled unconstitutional. A “parade for Angela”  supported another political prisoner, Angela Davis, incarcerated for her role in assisting imprisoned Black Panther George Jackson’s escape attempt; she was tried and acquitted of all charges the next year.
Progressive efforts to seek a voice through Berkeley electoral politics continued; the newly-formed April Coalition (later to become Berkeley Citizen’s Action) fielded Loni Hancock and Rick Brown for City Council , a slate later expanded to include D’Army Bailey and Ira T. Simmons . Community-police relations were very volatile, and a city measure to assure more accountability was a hot button issue .
The voices of people of color were gaining traction, a shift reflected in the posters. Malaquias Montoya’s poster  about the parallels between the Chicano and Vietnamese experience were eloquently expressed with both demanding U.S. out. And “The masses are the makers of history”  with the subtitle "The history of Asian-American farm labor" informs the reader that the United Farm Workers, which in 1970 had won the first farm union contract in history, had been jointly founded by Filipino workers and activists. The events of People’s Park were commemorated , and community demands for affordable food  and housing  were still vital. The emerging women’s movement was taking back control over health care , and the fledgling environmental movement had established a significant milestone – public recycling centers, years before municipal curbside pickup would be common . This poster was printed by La Raza Silkscreen, recently established in San Francisco’s Mission District and one that would be a key player in the next wave of cultural and political activism.
Assembling this exhibition
I wish to thank the Berkeley Historical Society for taking a chance on “new history” and encouraging this show, especially staffers Dale Smith and John Aronovici. Also contributing to this show were Doug Minkler, John Dugger, David Mundstock, Alice Schenker, Gary Lapow, Ann Tompkins, Urgyan Tenpa, and Joe McDonald.
These posters are culled from various collections, including the magnificent All Of Us Or None archive assembled by Free Speech veteran Michael Rossman, the H.K. Yuen poster archive, and the curator’s own material.
For more information, contact Lincoln Cushing, 510-418-5193, www.docspopuli.org.