Marketing Lessons From The Civil Rights Movement

manLast week I created a design package for a client using imagery that looks at race relations from the 1960s civil rights movement and the Black Lives Matter movement.  I noticed from a design and marketing perspective, both movements used similar tactics to organize and for messaging.  After doing some research online, I found out that Bobby Martin Jr, a graphic designer and branding expert who runs the Original Champions of Design in New York, had also come to similar conclusions, and that these same lessons can be used by other social movements.

1. Document everything. Some of the best lessons for future generations stems from photography and journalism of the civil rights movement.

I agree with this.  Some of the most striking images from the civil rights movement were the most gruesome, like when protesters were attacked by firehoses and police dogs.  These images made racism more believable and forced others to take action.  The same is true today.  With the popularity of social media, activists have been able to document injustices, such as the videos of Michael Brown’s dead body lying in the street for hours and the police strangling of Eric Garner.


2. No more committees. The most memorable work gets made when one person has the guts to make a decision and go with it. Leadership is important. Some of the most important advances of the civil rights movement were actions of individuals or groups acting on their own without direction from civil rights leaders or organizations: Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat, college students in Greensboro, N.C., sitting at segregated “whites only” lunch counters and the Freedom Riders who rode on into Mississippi after mob violence in Alabama, against the advice of leaders including Fred Shuttlesworth. Even during the Montgomery bus boycott that Rosa Parks incited, the people led the way.  

I slightly agree with this.  Rosa Parks, Fred Shuttlesworth and sit-in activists didn’t act alone necessarily.  Parks was very involved in her local NAACP chapter, Shuttlesworth worked with Dr. King and SCLC, and the college students did a lot of organizing with SNCC.  There were many people working behinds the scenes to make their brave actions happen.  But I guess the bigger point Martin was making was that the organizers behind the scenes used this messaging to show that one person or a few persons can make a difference and start a larger movement.  Rosa Parks wasn’t the first black person to refuse to give up her bus seat, but she was the first one to make a real, lasting impression that encouraged others to follow suit by becoming the face of the movement. No, she just didn’t feel tired that day, as it commonly said today! Rosa Parks was also more marketable to Northern whites who could sympathize with her.  This is all good marketing, y’all.  


  1. Keep messaging straight-forward and direct. Bold and simple type works best to convey a clear message.

Some of the most memorable slogans past and present – I Am A Man, We Shall Overcome, I Am Somebody, Black Power, I Can’t Breathe, Hands Up Don’t Shoot, and Black Lives Matter.  These are short, memorable and get to the point.

civil rights slogans

Martin says that he “uses graphic design as an agent of change” in his work, most notably in the branding of the 200th anniversary of the Abyssinian Baptist Church and it’s billboard campaign a few years ago.