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On this week’s Peace of History:
Let us consider the ubiquitous circular peace symbol . It may be surprising to learn that the symbol is a very modern invention, and one directly tied to the cause of nuclear disarmament. As explored in our 12/5 post, the origins of the Voluntown Peace Trust are shared with two important sources of the symbol’s spread: prominently displayed on a flag on the Golden Rule peace ship as it famously protested nuclear arms by attempting to enter U.S. atmospheric nuclear test sites; and on the signs carried on the San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace, which helped spread the symbol internationally in Europe. Moreover, Bayard Rustin, who was a co-founder of the Committee for Non-Violent Action (CNVA), brought the symbol to the United States.
The original peace symbol was designed by Gerald Holtom for the first Aldermaston March in the U.K. in April, 1958. Organized by groups affiliated with War Resisters’ International, the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the march started in London and ended at a weapons research facility in Aldermaston to protest the manufacturing of nuclear weapons. Gerald Holtom, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Art and an organizer for the march, explained that the symbol is a composite of the semaphore signals for the letters N and D: “Nuclear Disarmament.” Holtom also recounted his sense of despondency at the time he designed the symbol, and how it came to be reflected in the design, as “an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards.”
Bayard Rustin attended the Aldermaston March as a representative of the War Resisters League. By 1958, Bayard, an African-American pacifist who was out about his homosexuality, had already been involved in the peace movement for nearly two decades. His activities included organizing actions, strategizing campaigns, and training others in nonviolent resistance. Bayard spoke at the beginning of the march:
“There must be unilateral (disarmament) action by a single nation, come what may. There must be no strings attached. We must prepare to absorb the danger. We must use our bodies in direct action, non-cooperation, whatever is required to bring our government to its senses. In the United States, the black people of Montgomery said, ‘We will not cooperate with discrimination.’ And the action of those people achieved tremendous results. They are now riding the buses with dignity, because they were prepared to make a sacrifice of walking for their rights.”
Over the next few years, Bayard Rustin became a major figure in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, the Gay Liberation Movement, and the international disarmament movement. In 1960, just two years after the world premiere of the circular nuclear disarmament symbol, the Committee for Non-Violent Action brought the symbol to New London, Connecticut for the Polaris Action campaign. It became the symbol of the CNVA, and became known as the “peace symbol” as its popularity spread and protesters used it in opposition to the war in Vietnam.
Little known fact: after the symbol had reached wide circulation, Holtom actually expressed his preference to flip the original symbol upside-down, as a more joyous, celebratory design. This would also change the semaphore letter N to U: “Universal Disarmament.”
Next Week: We will examine Bayard Rustin’s influences on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
To learn more about Gerald Holtom, listen to the first part of the episode “Ubiquitous Icons” from the excellent podcast 99% Invisible: https://99percentinvisible.org/…/ubiquitous-icons-peace-po…/
To learn more about the Golden Rule, visit their website here: http://www.vfpgoldenruleproject.org/
And don’t forget to check in with our friends the Kings Bay Plowshares, who soon expect to be sentenced to prison for their nuclear arms protests: https://kingsbayplowshares7.org/