THE IMAGE strikes you, as racially diverse crowd-members stand shoulder to shoulder, holding the signs of a historic rally.
The caption hits you, as the words ring out from above: “…conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal… .”
Then, perhaps most jarringly, the date stops you, as the cartoon depicts the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington.
The publication date is from one day earlier.
The verdict upends you: Herblock seemed to forever have his finger uncannily on the pulse of the nation and the world, especially when his job required not only a moral conscience, but a beyond-mere-mortal prescience.
“Herblock had a long history of being ahead of events and 'calling it early', “ comics scholar Warren Bernard — who helped create the 2009 DVD for the companion book, “Herblock: The Life and Works of the Great Political Cartoonist” — tells Comic Riffs. ”And this prescient ability spanned decades.” (Bernard also highlights Herblock’s keen “prophetic” readings of events in 1933 Germany, as well as tying Watergate to the White House in a cartoon published in June of 1972, just six days after the break-in)
That sense of prescience, combined with the sheer magnitude of the moment, makes Herblock’s “Conceived in liberty…” artwork a powerful centerpiece to “Herblock Looks at 1963,” a 10-cartoon exhibit that runs through Sept. 14 in the Graphic Arts Galleries of the Library of Congress. (After that date, a second exhibit of Herblock cartoons from that same year will be up till next March.)
Herblock, of course, was the legendary, multi-Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist who drew for The Washington Post for 55 years, until shortly before his death in 2001. The following year, the Herb Block Foundation donated more than 14,000 of his cartoons — and more than three times as many sketches — to the Library of Congress. (He also is the subject of a new documentary that last month played the Tribeca Film Festival.)
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In the “Herblock Looks at 1963” show, viewers can appreciate not only his deft ink-and-graphite draftsmanship in person, but also issues that the left-leaning cartoonist often gave voice to, including civil rights, education, the environment and nuclear-testing bans.
“It was clear to me when he died that Herblock cared about making the world a better place for everybody,” says Sara Duke, curator of Popular & Applied Graphic Art at the Library of Congress’s Prints & Photographs division.
“He left money to the United Negro College Fund and other humanitarian causes, so when I read his words about attending the March on Washington in "Straight Herblock" (1964), I knew I had to feature the civil-rights movement in the Herblock Gallery,” Duke tells Comic Riffs. “He writes about how empty the space [before the Memorial] was and how quiet it appeared until noon. He emphasized the courteous nature of the event and the dignity of the people who attended. And so, I selected cartoons that celebrated that famous day on Aug. 28, 1963 … , but also ones that remind us of how important it was to Herblock that everyone be treated with dignity, to be equal under the law. and that by treating some unfairly. it ultimately drags everyone down.
“He acknowledged that the path to equality was going to be difficult for whites who had been privileged at the expense of African American inequality — that their fear that life was going to change was palpable,” Duke continues.
“I hope it is possible for people to see echoes of the present in the past.”
CAPTION: “You Don’t Understand, Boy — You’re Supposed to Just Shuffle Along.”
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CAPTION: “Who Said Anything About Driving Out Castro? We’re Talking About Kennedy.”