Artifact of the Month: Dizzy Gillespie for President button

If you’re already fed up with the 2016 presidential campaign and aching for a new candidate to shake things up, our December Artifact of the Month is for you!

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The artifact is a pinback button reading “Dizzy Gillespie for President.” Dizzy Gillespie, of course, being the jazz trumpeter who earned his place in the pantheon of masters in the 1940s and 50s. Gillespie was born in Cheraw, South Carolina, less than 15 miles from the North Carolina border. He spent two years in North Carolina studying at the Laurinburg Institute as a young man on a music scholarship, before his rise to fame and long before this button was made.

Now, if you’ve never thought of Gillespie as a politician you may be wondering why this button was made.

The practice of printing joke items reading “___________ for President” has long been a promotional tool for performers and other celebrities. That’s what the “Dizzy Gillespie for President” slogan was initially — just a funny tool for promotion. Gillespie’s booking agency, Associated Booking Corporation, created the buttons as merchandise for fans, probably in the late 1950s.

But several years later, with the fight for civil rights taking on increasing urgency and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom serving as inspiration, Gillespie decided he would, in fact, launch a presidential campaign. He had a political platform, a campaign manager, and a slate of jazz greats shortlisted for his cabinet.

Gillespie pitched his candidacy as a third choice in the 1964 presidential race between Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater. And although he never got on the ballot in any state, his campaign did serve as a valid — if sometimes lighthearted — critique of the issues.

1955 portrait of Dizzy Gillespie from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Van Vechten Collection, reproduction number LC-USZ62-102156 DLC.
1955 portrait of Dizzy Gillespie from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Van Vechten Collection. File here.

In his memoir, To Be, or not… to Bop, Gillespie writes, “Anybody coulda made a better President than the ones we had in those times, dillydallying about protecting blacks in the exercise of their civil and human rights and carrying on secret wars against people around the world.”

How would a Gillespie presidency have been different? He would have had NASA send at least one black astronaut to space. Transformed the White House into the Blues House. Revoked the citizenship of Alabama Governor George Wallace and deported him to Vietnam. Required the Senate Internal Security Committee to investigate “everything under white sheets” for un-American activities.

Gillespie acknowledged later that the campaign “had its humorous side,” but the media attention he received shed light on critical issues like segregation and employment discrimination. He writes:

There were pressures on me to withdraw from the race after the press began to show some interest, and they found out that I was a serious candidate. Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee, an arch conservative, tried to split and draw away my support from the jazz community by naming Turk Murphy as his favorite musician. I replied, ‘All I can say is don’t blame Turk for that. I’m glad he didn’t pick me.’

The election took place on November 3, 1964. And — spoiler alert — Gillespie didn’t win. But his campaign was a media-savvy way to bring important ideas into the national conversation.

This pinback button is part of a recent donation of objects from donor and longtime friend of the NCC Lew Powell, along with a trove of other buttons, three-dimensional artifacts, and paper ephemera from North Carolina. We look forward to sharing more from the Lew Powell Memorabilia Collection in the new year!

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