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MLK pin-back buttons trace history of Civil Rights Movement
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MLK pin-back buttons trace history of Civil Rights Movement
By Larry LeMasters

A pin-back button (also called pin button or button badge) is a button-shaped metal disk or badge that can be fastened to the surface of clothing using a safety pin anchored on the back of the button. The front surface of a pin-back button carries an image or printed message, which is often political in nature since pin-back buttons are most commonly associated with campaign buttons used during political campaigns.

Josiah Wedgewood, of Wedgewood pottery fame, created the earliest known pin-back button in 1787. Wedgewood’s famous pin button depicted a slave in chains and used the slogan “Am I not a man and a brother” to promote the anti-slavery movement in Britain.

In the United States, the first presidential campaign buttons were for George Washington’s inauguration in 1789. And the first campaign buttons with photographs were used to promote Abraham Lincoln during his presidential run of 1860. The buttons must have worked since Lincoln was elected.

Whitehead & Hoag produced and patented the modern design for pin-back buttons in 1896, calling its creation a “’Badge Pin or Button’ which used a metal pin anchored to the back of the button.” Most contemporary pin-back buttons still use elements of Whitehead & Hoag’s button.

In 1898, pin-back buttons moved from only being associated with politics to pop culture when a button featuring the Yellow Kid (a popular cartoon character) was released. And in 1945, the Kellogg Company inserted promotional pin-back buttons into each box of Pep Cereal. These “Pep” pins included US Army squadrons and cartoon characters. The Pep cartoon characters series, alone, had 90 different pins that one could obtain just by eating cereal. Today, pin-back button collectors try to collect all 90 of these cereal pins; although, few collections actually have all of the buttons.

In the 1960s, pin-back button pins once again sported political themes as the Civil Rights Movement swept America. Emerging from the Civil Rights Movement was a highly sought after set of pin-back buttons—those featuring Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King (MLK), the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and he remains the most visible spokesperson for the Civil Rights Movement in America. From 1955, when he led the Montgomery bus boycott, until his assassination in Memphis in 1968, King, following his Christian beliefs and the non-violent activism of Mahatma Gandhi, advanced civil rights for everyone through nonviolence and civil disobedience.

In 1963, King organized his famous March on Washington where he delivered one of the 20th century’s most famous speeches—his “I have a Dream Speech.” And on Oct. 14, 1964, the entire world recognized King’s work when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for combating racial inequality through non-violent resistance. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as a holiday in numerous cities and states beginning in 1971, and it was established as a US federal holiday in 1986.

Nearly everything that King ever did or said can be found on a pin-back button. His life and sayings have been used on buttons as inspiration since the 1960s, making some of the pins over 50 years old.

In 1969, the Committee for a MLK Holiday issued one of the rarest MLK pin-back buttons. The Committee sought to make Jan. 15th a national holiday (King was born on Jan. 15, 1929), so with that end in mind, the Committee issued its famous “Give a Damn” pin-back button. This 2-inch diameter pin-back is currently valued as high as $150 on Internet auction sites, making it, perhaps, the highest priced MLK pin button available.

On Aug. 28, 1993, MLK’s image was used on a “Jobs, Justice & Peace” button. King’s image and words served as inspiration then as they still do today. Pin-back buttons have helped keep King’s image and words fresh in our memories, making him a man for all times.

Barack Obama successfully used King’s image on a series of campaign buttons for the presidential election of 2008. Many people believe that without the pioneering work of MLK, Obama’s presidential run would have been impossible. These “I have a dream” pin-back buttons make a fabulous and historic collection by themselves and are still affordable, averaging about $6 per button on the secondary market.

Obama also used the memory of MLK along with the memory of Rosa Parks on his presidential campaign button “Rosa sat so Martin could walk so Obama could run.” This is an attractive red, white & blue pin that clearly illustrates the process of fighting for civil rights is an evolutionary process. This pin is just $3 and makes an excellent starting pin for any collection.

Martin Luther King served as a modern-day Moses, seeking the freedom of all of God’s children. And like Moses, King was denied entrance into the Promised Land, but, today, King’s legacy lives on in an abundance of events, movements, thoughts, keepsakes, and pin-back buttons. Collectors know that there are times when a pin button represents something so much larger than a collectible item. Martin Luther King pin-back buttons represent the best that humankind can hope to achieve. And the buttons will exist as long as there are collectors.