Historic Events and Political Cartoons
Since history was first recorded, people have employed art to tell stories. We still find evidence for these stories painted on darkened cave walls, chiseled in stone, or fixed in stained glass windows. After the invention of the printing press, people came to rely more heavily on books and periodicals, but the appetite for storytelling with pictures or illustrating texts persisted.
Some artists utilized their creations to express opinions about a range of topics. Although scholars disagree about the precise origins of political cartoons, Benjamin Franklin is generally recognized as the first political cartoonist in the United States, primarily for his 1754 drawing of a snake cut into segments that represented individual British American colonies. Franklin urged the colonies to “Join or Die,” to unify against the French and Native Americans. The image was not Franklin’s first drawing, but it was the first to make an explicit political argument.
The subsequent history of the United States included numerous political cartoonists whose drawings expressed opinions on a wide range of topics. The invention of photography, motion pictures, and computer animation introduced new media to storytelling but did little to diminish the popularity of sketches that provided compelling commentary on current events. Today these sketches offer fascinating insights into the past.
Two Prominent Arkansas Cartoonists
Two of the most prominent political cartoonists in Arkansas were Jon Kennedy, who worked for the Arkansas Democrat from 1941 to 1988, and Bill Graham, who worked for the Arkansas Gazette from 1948 to 1985. In retrospect their cartoons provide illustrations and commentary for some of the most momentous events in the twentieth century, as well as more parochial concerns and politicians that were unique to Arkansas. Their works provoked a variety of emotions in readers. They could be humorous or somber, critical or complimentary.
As employees of competing daily newspapers, Kennedy and Graham were partially shaped by market demands to sell advertisements and newspapers. They successfully navigated the political preferences of their readers and employers to keep their jobs. For this reason, their works were at least partially indicative of public sentiment.
Numerous selections from the artists’ collections prove their abiding utility for learning about this era and reflecting on changes that have occurred since the 1940s. Both Kennedy and Graham drew cartoons about the 1957 desegregation crisis at Little Rock’s Central High School, for example, and they generally sided with local whites who pursued minimal desegregation. This perspective was reflected in Kennedy’s “Making a Tough Job Tougher.” It sympathized with the Little Rock School Board’s balancing act to follow court orders to desegregate schools, but the image equated “unyielding segregationists” with the NAACP. As Graham’s “The Eyes of the Nation” and Kennedy’s “The Walls Have Ears” suggest, both cartoonists immediately perceived the significance of the crisis for shaping outside perceptions of the city and state.
Placing Arkansas within U.S. History
In addition to making discoveries about Arkansas history, students and teachers will find their cartoons useful for placing Arkansas in the broader context of U.S. history. When the Democratic Party divided during the contentious 1948 presidential election, Kennedy’s “What manner of beast?” with its depiction of Governor Ben Laney piecing together a political party with donkey and elephant parts, provided a prescient glimpse into the future. Within 20 years, the state would elect Winthrop Rockefeller, its first Republican governor since Reconstruction, and by the end of the century, the ascendance of the Republican Party in the state would be nearly complete. Likewise, a 1954 piece by Graham, “The Sun Shines a Little Brighter in Some Places,” depicted the new polio vaccine as a light shining from above onto Arkansas, where 3,000 polio cases had been reported since 1946. These diverse examples indicate the variety of ways that one can discover Arkansas’s story within U.S. history.
The cartoonists also traced the ascendance of Bill Clinton in Arkansas. Kennedy depicted him as the “New Democratic Boy-Wonder” during the 1974 congressional election that Clinton narrowly lost to an incumbent seeking his fifth term. Clinton’s opponent appeared in the same piece, mired in the mud of the “Watergate Stigma.” After Clinton was elected governor in 1978, Kennedy drew him jogging in front of a retirement home, wearing a shirt that identified him as the youngest governor in the country. Kennedy noted the irony by reminding readers that Arkansas had the second highest percentage of elderly citizens in the country.
Barclay Key, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He received his degree from the University of Florida. He teaches courses in modern American history, African-American history, southern history, American religious history, and Arkansas history. His favorite band is the Drive-By Truckers, and he has run at least two miles a day since August 1, 2011.