How Posters Helped Shape America and Change the World

One enthusiast’s collection, on exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California, offers a sweeping look at grass-roots movements since the 1960s

(Pam Valois, Don't Call Me Sweetheart: A Poster Exhibition of Women's Images and Issues, 1978. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, All Of Us Or None Archive. Gift of The Rossman Family)
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Michael Rossman
(Paul Fusco / Magnum Photos)
For at least 80 years, posters have been a powerful lever in America’s tool kit for social change. Though no single poster changed national policy, many brought important issues to light—and helped sway lawmakers, candidates and Congressional leaders. Posters focused attention on South African apartheid, the Vietnam War and the environment. They coaxed us to rock concerts, and inspired us to Celebrate Earth Day and Boycott Gallo. More than a national phenomenon, they helped create solidarity between social justice groups all over the world.

As a student at Berkeley in the early 1960s, Michael Rossman (1939-2008) was a tireless activist, renowned for his part in organizing the Free Speech Movement. Rossman later taught science, wrote books and collected posters created by the vital social and political movements sweeping the nation since 1965. By the end of his life he’d amassed nearly 25,000 posters, on themes ranging from “Be-ins” to Black Power: an extraordinary window onto America’s grass-roots democratic discourse.

An exhibition of 68 posters drawn from Rossman’s collection—“All of Us or None”—is now at the Oakland Museum of California (an additional 1,273 may be viewed online). Here are a dozen highlights, all pre-1980.

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