After the recent deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile once again drew nationwide attention to issues of police brutality and racial injustice, a widely shared image has hit a collective nerve. The image depicts a flag hanging outside of New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery, rendered in simple black and white and depicting blocky, capitalized text that reads “A Man Was Lynched By The Police Yesterday.” It’s the kind of image that distills a complex issue into a powerful visual language that is easy to comprehend and impossible to ignore.
It’s also the kind of image that draws some of its effectiveness from its historical context. The flag is the work of the Brooklyn-based artist and activist Dread Scott, who created it in 2015 after a police officer fatally shot Walter Scott in Charleston, South Carolina–but the significance of the flag stretches back much further than 2015. Scott’s flag is an updated version of a flag created in the 1920s by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as part of its national anti-lynching campaign. Scott altered the text on the flag–he added “by the police” after lynched–but otherwise tried to remain as faithful as possible to the original design. Much of Scott’s work, he says, looks at how the “past exists in the present in new form.”
The NAACP’s created its flag in the 1920s, and until 1938 the organization flew the flag outside of its headquarters on Fifth Avenue every time there was a lynching anywhere in the country. Founded in 1909, the NAACP created a special committee in 1916 that was dedicated to raising awareness about lynching as well as passing anti-lynching legislation. Most of the organization’s efforts during the ’20s revolved around lobbying for a bill put forth by Missouri Representative Leonidas C. Dyer that sought to charge lynch mobs with capital murder charges and to try lynching cases in federal court. Though Dyer’s bill gained significant traction thanks largely to the NAACP’s efforts, its passage was halted in 1922 by a filibuster in the Senate, and a similar anti-lynching bill wouldn’t be passed until the 1950s. But Dyer’s bill made anti-lynching legislation one of the NAACP’s most central concerns, and the massive public relations campaign it waged became critical to raising public concern about the issue.
One aspect of the campaign was the ritual of raising the black-and-white flag outside of its headquarters to make visible the frequencies of lynchings during that time. According to the office of art and archives for the U.S. House of Representative, between 1901 and 1929, more than 1,200 blacks were lynched in the South, and over 40% of those were concentrated just in Georgia and Mississippi. The flag asked that New Yorkers bear witness to these very public killings, even if they weren’t happening in their backyard.
Scott sees a parallel between the efforts of the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign 90 years ago and the protest of police killings today, and is using his artwork to highlight it. He points to recently surfaced data that show more black people being killed by the police in the U.S. in 2015 than were lynched in 1892, the worst year for lynching in the Jim Crow era. After watching the video of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man in Charleston, South Carolina, who was shot by a police officer following a traffic stop, Scott decided to recreate the flag as an art piece. He re-designed the flag, adding the words “by the police” but otherwise trying to match the design of the original as closely as possible. Four days later, he tweeted the file. He then set about reproducing a physical redesign of the original flag, which is currently housed in the manuscript division of the Library of Congress.
A librarian at the Library of Congress told Scott that the flag is made of black canvas with white linen appliques, and measures approximately 6.5 feet by 9.5 feet. After finding a fabricator who could produce the flag in those materials, he set about finding a similar font to the original, eventually landing on a font called Kabel DT Condensed that he altered slightly in InDesign. The flag was shown in a gallery in Des Moines, Iowa, last summer, but had sat in Scott’s studio since.
Then on July 7, 2016, the day after the death of Philando Castile and two days after the death of Alton Sterling, Scott dug the flag back out. His work is currently being shown at the Jack Shainman Gallery’s For Freedoms exhibition, curated by an artist-run “super PAC” of the same name, and he suggested to the co-founders that there be a late addition to the show. When they agreed, he drove the flag from his studio in Brooklyn to the gallery in Manhattan, and brought it to a Black Lives Matter protest in Union Square before hanging it outside of the gallery. The response the piece received was overwhelming, Scott says. Demonstrators at the protest were eager to talk to him about it, multiple galleries have reached out about featuring the flag in upcoming shows, and photos of the flag have been shared all over social media. “It resonated because people are standing up, but we’re also standing up to a crime from decades past that is still in the present,” he says. “For most people [the killings] feel outmoded.”
On July 11, Fox news ran an inflammatory story about the flag, and the landlord of the building rented by the gallery, not wanting to be caught in the center of a controversy, told the gallery to take it down. Since the gallery doesn’t technically rent the exterior walls of the building, Scott says, they were forced to remove it. Now the flag hangs in street level front window of the gallery.
Even this action speaks to the parallel between the NAACP flag from decades ago and Scott’s recent rendition. In 1938, the NAACP was forced to remove their flag after the building’s landlord threatened not to renew their lease. For Scott, the similarities between the two circumstances reinforces his message that things need to change. “There was terror in the idea of a lynch mob,” he says. “Most people were not lynched in the 1900s, but the threat of lynching constantly hung over black people: that for any minor crime they could be killed and the perpetrator would not be punished. Most of us living today will not be killed by police, but any of us could. We’re sick of it, and we’re sick of living like this.”