The Story Behind The ‘You Can’t Jail The Revolution’ Poster

We trace the history of the iconic phrase and raised fist gesture on a protest poster from the 1969 trial of the ‘Chicago 8.’

Chicago 8 poster
Photo illustration by Maggie Sivit for WBEZ
Chicago 8 poster
Photo illustration by Maggie Sivit for WBEZ

The Story Behind The ‘You Can’t Jail The Revolution’ Poster

We trace the history of the iconic phrase and raised fist gesture on a protest poster from the 1969 trial of the ‘Chicago 8.’

In 1969, Chicago was home to one of history’s most high-profile trials.

Known as the Trial of the Chicago 8 — and sometimes the Trial of the Chicago 7 — the trial and the events that predate it have been back in the spotlight with the 2020 release of a film by Aaron Sorkin.

As the film shows, protesters gathered outside of the courthouse daily, the crowd famously chanting, “The whole world is watching” — a phrase that became a slogan synonymous with the trial. And oftentimes posters would be handed out to people who’d come to protest or to show their support for the men on trial.

A Curious City listener asked about one of these posters:

What’s the history of the “You Can’t Jail The Revolution” street poster given away outside the trial?

Printed on an off-white background, the poster has the phrases “You can’t jail the revolution,” “Stop the trial,” and “Free the Conspiracy Eight.” And, it has the image of a man with his fist raised in a Black Power salute.

Conspiracy 7 poster
These are two of the flyers which appeared on Washington streets, Feb. 12, 1970. A group called ‘The Conspiracy’ is distributing buttons, flags and placards to demonstrate against the verdict in the Chicago conspiracy trial. Focal point in the capital is the Watergate Apartment where Atty. Gen. John Mitchell and some of the other cabinet members live. Associated Press

The poster is unsigned, but although we don’t know who the artist is, we do know its purpose. It was commissioned by the Committee to Defend the Conspiracy, a group of activists who were raising money for the eight men who were on trial. The group published a letter in the New York Review of Books to garner support.

“That group included some prominent writers and intellectuals: Norman Mailer, Noam Chomsky, Dr. Spock, Susan Sontag,” said Jason Nargis, a special collections librarian at Northwestern University who did archival research on the poster’s origins. “They wrote this sort of call, saying that the anti-riot act — which is what they were using as justification for the trial — was un-American and unconstitutional and they called for support.”

The message on the poster still reverberates today. At protests against police violence, people continue to chant versions of “You can’t jail the revolution” and raise their fists as a symbol of solidarity. More importantly, the history of the poster and its continuing relevance reflects the powerful relationship between visual images and the role they play in moving people to participate in social movements and protest.

The Trial of the Chicago 8

The text on the poster is directly tied to the trial and the events that led up to it.

Nineteen sixty-eight — the year before — was a tumultuous one, fueled by monumental historic events including the Vietnam War. Over 20,000 American soldiers had already died in the war, and another 17,000 would lose their lives by the year’s end.

In March, President Lyndon B. Johnson pulled out of his re-election campaign as the anti-war movement continued to build strength. In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, followed by the assassination of Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy in June.

By August, when the Democratic Party held its National Convention in Chicago, tensions were already high as activists sought to use the spotlight for anti-war demonstrations. Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley refused to grant many of the activists permits to protest. He also wanted a heavy law enforcement presence and requested 5,600 Illinois National Guardsmen to add to the 11,500-member Chicago police force, 1,000 federal agents, and 7,500 federal soldiers.

1968 DNC
Jeers greet Chicago police officers as they attempt to disperse demonstrators outside the Conrad Hilton, Democratic Convention headquarters hotel Wednesday, August 29, 1968. Michael Boyer / Associated Press

While the convention took place, law enforcement met protesters with violence in a scene that looked eerily similar to today’s protests against police killings. (A report by the U.S. National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence confirms that police did in fact cause the violence during these protests.)

The following year, the new administration under Republican President Richard Nixon, decided to prosecute eight people involved in the Chicago protests, accusing them of violating the anti-riot “Rap Brown law” — formally known as the Civil Obedience Act of 1968.

“They were prosecuted under a brand new law, which had been passed specifically against Black radicals crossing state lines to ‘incite a riot’,” said historian Jon Wiener, author of Conspiracy in the Streets: The Extraordinary Trial of the Chicago Eight.

Although charged with conspiring with one another, some of the eight had never met.

The ridiculousness of the charge furthered activists’ fight to “stop the trial” and led to the nickname the “Conspiracy 8.”

“The Committee to Defend the Conspiracy, they got their name from the fact that a bunch of people in the Chicago 8 were calling themselves ‘the conspiracy,’ kind of jokingly,” Becky Little, a journalist who wrote about the trial for history.com, explained.

The charges against all of the men were unfounded, but especially for Bobby Seale, the national chairman of the Black Panther Party, who had nothing to do with any of the protests organized by white radicals and other anti-war groups. Seale was charged even though he was only in Chicago for four hours that day to give a speech.

Bobby Seale
Black Panther chairman Bobby Seale on Nov. 21, 1968. Associated Press

The phrase on the poster, “You can’t jail the revolution,” was first said in regards to Seale being on trial. During the court proceedings Judge Julius Jennings Hoffman ordered Seale be gagged and chained to his chair. The phrase is from a famous speech by Fred Hampton, who was chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s.

“Bobby Seale is going through all types of physical and mental torture,” Hampton said in the speech. “But that’s alright. Because we’ve said, even before this happened, and we’re going to say it after this, and after I’m locked up, and after everybody’s locked up: that you can jail a revolutionary, but you can’t jail a revolution.”

A universal symbol of resistance

The image on the poster is tied to 1968, but also has a significance that can be traced back to protest movements for over a century.

“The graphic image of the man holding his fist up is the image of Tommie Smith,” said Julie Herrada, curator of the Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan, which has a copy of the poster in its archives.

Tommie Smith
In this Oct. 16, 1968 file photo, United States athletes Tommie Smith, top center, and John Carlos, top right, extend their gloved fists skyward during the playing of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ after Smith received the gold and Carlos the bronze for the 200-meter run at the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City. Associated Press
In October of 1968, after winning gold and bronze medals for the 200-meter run, Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in what was recognized then as a Black power salute to bring awareness to the oppression of Black people. The image of the duo, along with Australian runner Peter Norman, has become legendary.

“When they were standing on the podium in Mexico City to receive their medals, they held up their fists,” Herrada said. The men were stripped of their medals for making the gesture.

“And that image was very iconic and very, very powerful to a lot of leftist radicals at that time,” Herrada said.

But the history of the raised fist dates back to the 1910s and was first used in 1912 by a crowd of striking workers in Budapest, Hungary. Colette Gaiter, professor of Africana Studies and art and design at the University of Delaware, has done research into this history and how the gesture has been used.

“It is a universal symbol of resistance,” Gaiter said. “So I don’t think anybody can claim ownership to that.”

Movements influence other movements, she explained, and art is a testament to that idea. Famed artist and activist Emory Douglas was responsible for guiding the Black Panther Party’s visuals for decades and oversaw the party’s newspaper from 1967 until it ended production in 1980. His work, she said, was reprinted and used around the world.

“Our current ideas about appropriation and copyright — they are contemporary — because back in the day, like in the ’60s, there were a lot of underground newspapers, and a lot of them borrowed art from each other,” Gaiter explained. “Emory Douglas made posters that were appropriated by Cuban poster artists [who] took the artwork … they credited him, but they used his artwork.”

And especially in the ’60s, adapting art to spread key messages aligned with what the Panthers were doing and what the resistance movement was all about.

“I think that at that time, the idea was we’re all in solidarity in this international liberation movement,” she said. “And we can share images; we can share what we need to share to make our point.”

Protest as art

Like the poster suggests, every protest movement has imagery — imagery that has the power to give people a sense of belonging and move people to take action. But also, protests themselves can be works of art.

“For me, all protests, generally speaking, are a form of symbolic storytelling,” said Glenn Kaino, an artist who worked with Olympian Tommie Smith on an exhibition about the raised fist titled With Drawn Arms. “Like people mass on the streets and demonstrate their ideas about how the world needs to change, and they use sometimes large scale performances, like gatherings and marches to assemble, to create these images of representation, in ways that sometimes have the ability to communicate at a larger scale.”

Kaino and Smith worked collectively to explore how to use the exhibition to tell Smith’s story.

With arms drawn
This photo from Sept. 27, 2018, shows a sculpture called ‘Bridge,’ which was the centerpiece of an exhibition called ‘With Drawn Arms: Glenn Kaino and Tommie Smith’ at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. The exhibition reflects on a protest at the 1968 Summer Olympics by African-American sprinters, who raised black-gloved fists to protest the way black people were treated in the United States. The 100-foot-long sculpture comprises about 150 gold-colored casts of Smith’s arm suspended from the ceiling in an undulating wave stretching dramatically across a large gallery. Kate Brumback / Associated Press

“A lot of artists have mined, both the iconography, sometimes the words, sometimes the scholarship of our cultural heroes, oftentimes, with obviously, crediting them,” he said. “But then if you go back and look, in terms of what the actual partnerships were, you say, well, the person who sacrificed to make that original source material didn’t really participate in the remuneration or any of the benefits that the artists might have gotten for themselves throughout the course of making their art, and I didn’t want to do that at all.”

Michael Rooks, a curator at the High Museum in Atlanta, worked with Kaino and Smith on their exhibition. He said, like all good art, the gesture and the power behind that image is so influential that it continues to be used today, even if it takes a different form.

“It functions in Colin Kaepernick taking a knee and for athletes across the world doing the same thing,” Rooks said. “It’s not a raised fist, in this case, but it’s the same — it means the same thing and it comes from the same place.”

Arionne Nettles is a journalism lecturer at Northwestern University’s Medill School. Follow her @arionnenettles.

This episode was produced by Joe DeCeault and Steven Jackson and edited by Alexandra Salomon.

Editor’s note: This story originally referred to the exhibition as “With Arms Drawn.” It is actually called “With Drawn Arms” and has been corrected.