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  • Reflecting on Ethnic Imagery in the Landscape of Commerce, 1945–1975
  • Fath Davis Ruffins (bio)

Ruffins, Fath Davis. 1998. Reflecting on ethnic imagery in the landscape of commerce, 1945–1975. In Getting and Spending: European and American Consumer Societies in the Twentieth Century, ed. by Susan Strasser, Charles McGovern, and Matthias Judt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 379–406. Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press. Illustrations reprinted permission of the Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.


Between 1945 and 1975, Americans turned their nation into a global powerhouse of production and consumption, and their government bound together foreign policy success, consumerism, and domestic tranquillity in new and explicit ways. During World War II, the Office of War Information - in posters, billboards, pamphlets, and radio programs - had clearly linked the wartime sacrifices to the coming prosperity of the postwar years. The long-term effects of the G.I. Bills supporting veteran’s education, home ownership, and business aspirations trickled down even to Afro-Americans Mexican Americans. 1 By the early 1960s, many working-class Americans could own television sets, washing machines, and perhaps a Chevy or a Ford. During the Eisenhower presidency, growing consumerism at home was explicitly tied to the fight against communism abroad. At a joint trade fair in Moscow in 1959,Vice President Richard M. Nixon predicted to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that America would win the fight against communism with its refrigerators, toasters, and cars. 2 Prosperity and world hegemony were integrally connected in the postwar world.

Yet the same nation that was shown proceeding toward consumerist heaven in countless television commercials, Hollywood movies, and print advertisements was also riven by profound internal conflict, especially over questions of race and ethnicity. It was only the threat of a massive march on Washington that forced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802, which established the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPQ to investigate charges of discrimination in hiring by government and business. In 1948 the threat of a close presidential election forced President Harry S. Truman to issue Executive Order 9981 to desegregate the armed forces. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had agitated for just such actions for over a generation, and after World War II, its work began to pay off. From the late 1940s through the late 1950s, under Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Supreme Court issued a series of decisions that decreed desegregation in party primaries, public transportation, accommodations, and eventually education, most famously in the 1954 landmark decision Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which mandated desegregation in American public schools “with all deliberate speed.” In 1955 the Afro-American community of Montgomery, Alabama, began its justly famous and successful bus boycott, which catapulted both Rosa Parks and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., then a young man, to national attention. This bus boycott is widely seen today as the symbolic beginning of the modern civil rights movement that was to change American society dramatically over the next ten years.

With a wave of demonstrations, boycotts, and other forms of “direct action,” issues of race and equality hit the top of the domestic national agenda. In 1957, a conservative president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was forced to send federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to protect nine Afro-American children entering a previously whites-only high school. In 1963, the symbolic high water mark of the civil rights movement occurred during the March on Washington: a peaceful demonstration by 250,000 people on the Mall in support of the civil rights bill before Congress. As a result of this demonstration and Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, the Congress in 1964, passed the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination. In 1965 the Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which guaranteed all Americans the right to vote. These bills were signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Such concerns about the civil rights of Afro-Americans had not taken such a progressive tone on the national stage since the era of Reconstruction (1865–77). Indeed, many people during the early and mid-1960s labeled these...