The true “Toy Story:” G.I. Joe and the Civil Rights Movement

The true “Toy Story:” G.I. Joe and the Civil Rights Movement

“Toy Story,” a traveling museum, visited Presbyterian College in February. It centers on the well-known toy line, “G.I. Joe,” and how it positively impacted the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.

Showcasing an impressive collection of G.I. Joe action figures, the exhibit is curated by Bryan K. Smith. It tells the story of how, in 1963, toy manufacturer Hasbro created the G.I. Joe action figure in direct response to their rival Mattel’s Barbie.

“I started the exhibit about ten or twelve years ago and it was my way of paying homage to a toy that meant a lot to me,”explained Smith, who is an author, speaker and consultant. “I only take this exhibit out in February. I’ve taken it to Bradley University, an army depot in Kentucky and I’ve taken it to some elementary schools. The museum is my way of giving back, as a lot of schools can’t afford to bring me in as a speaker.”

The G.I. Joe was the first ever “action figure,” a label used to overcome the notion that boys shouldn’t play with dolls. Hasbro modeled the G.I. Joes after World War II soldiers, who commanded great respect.

What makes G.I. Joe special, though, is that only two years after the creation of the first model, Hasbro introduced an African-American model. It was exactly the same as the Caucasian figures, right down to the uniforms and equipment. In comparison, Mattel would not release an African-American Barbie until 24 years after its first model was released.

Hasbro has not been completely without fault, though. Smith half-smiled, as he held up a figure of an angry-looking soldier with facial scars and a nametag that read, “Stalker.” The figure, Smith said, came out not longer after the infamous OJ Simpson case.

Yet despite their occasional gaff, the museum is mostly positive of Hasbro, stating in a flier, “Since 1965 G.I. Joe has helped to fight an undeclared war against racial discrimination and prejudice.”