The Change.org petition to remove two Depression-era murals in the Jefferson County Courthouse, in Birmingham, Alabama begins with this statement:
A courthouse should be a place of equality and justice before the law.
The controversial murals, which were done in the early 1930s by artist John Warner Norton, depict gigantic white people – a woman in the “Old South” mural and a man in the other, titled “New South” – standing tall over groups of much smaller blacks who are laboring, at the bottom of the scene, to bring the white vision into reality. And some in Birmingham want them gone.
Back in May, I read about the efforts to remove or cover the murals, when the AP covered the story:
The Jefferson County Commission on Thursday endorsed a recommendation from a special committee to put retractable shades over murals in the Birmingham courthouse that depict black people picking cotton and doing other manual labor against a backdrop of white people in more prominent positions.
The commission didn’t take a formal vote, however. It’s not yet clear when that will happen.
Amid those developments, Birmingham Museum of Art director Gail Andrews asked, “What do we save? What do we keep? What do we try to understand better about the forming of our nation and our county?”
“These are not murals that we take pride in today,” she said. “I appreciate that, but they are our history and we need to understand them.”
Since I hadn’t seen any more news about what would happen with the murals, I stopped by the Jefferson County Courthouse in late July to see if they were still there. And they were. Frankly, despite their size and their demeaning imagery, they were being largely ignored by the few people languishing in small lobby where the murals are located. (It was nearly 100 degrees that day, and I think they were just glad to get out of the heat.) One young man who stopped me in the lobby, asking me sign his petitions to get the Green and Libertarian candidates on the November ballot, had no idea what I was talking about when I told them I was only there to look at the murals.
Despite my own heat-induced languor that day, I had to agree about the deep irony of being flanked by two massive glorifications of injustice right as one enters a public building whose purpose is to house justice. However, I would think that most people today enter that courthouse with their own business on their minds, and many probably don’t even notice the murals, especially since the “Old South” mural, which contains the slavery images, looms right over a security station’s metal detector.
The discussion here is really over symbolism, not practicality. Just as a Confederate flag has never jumped down off of a pole and attacked anyone, it is what the flag stands for that makes it difficult: how can we glorify the Confederate South without also glorifying its most recognizable feature: slavery? Some defenders try to make the argument that we can value one without the other, but few of us buy it these days. Likewise, with these murals. What do we do with public art that testifies to, and even celebrates, the severity of past inequality? Again, it’s a hard sell to leave it there, as is . . . even though it may be even more dangerous, long term, to sanitize our understanding of history by removing or covering images that remind us how many errs in judgment have led us to where we are now.