- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 30, 2015

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - Two Alabama courthouse murals featuring black laborers have sparked a debate on the role of public art and the risks communities run by removing provocative reminders of an ugly past.

The Jefferson County Commission is expected to discuss by next week a request from the Metro Birmingham branch of the NAACP to remove the rectangular murals “Old South” and “New South” that tower over the cavernous lobby of the county courthouse. The murals feature black people doing manual labor at the base of each piece against the backdrop of white people in larger and more prominent positions during the region’s agricultural and industrial eras.

Some who oppose the murals have cited renewed national scrutiny of the Confederate battle flag after the fatal shooting of nine black parishioners at a Charleston, South Carolina, church. They say there’s a wider need to re-examine divisive symbols and historic representations. Those in favor of preserving the art say the pieces represent pivotal moments in the region’s history in ways other symbols don’t.

“I just think it’s a distraction in the larger sense of what needs to be done,” said Auburn University professor emeritus of history Wayne Flynt. Addressing systemic issues involves confronting policies, but dealing with historic symbols is more complicated and divisive, he said. “The tragedy to me is that, first of all, reducing the symbols is not going to reduce the inequity,” Flynt said.

Some who support removal of the murals, including County Commission President Pro Tem Sandra Little Brown, have said the murals silently reinforce and romanticize racial hierarchy. Commissioner David Carrington also supports taking down the murals and has noted other symbols with divisive meanings in the courthouse, notably swastika-like etchings meant to be peace symbols in the foundation from the building’s opening in the 1930s.

Flynt said his inclination is “not to erase history as if it didn’t happen, but to interpret it honestly and truthfully.” Flynt said he understands why the NAACP and others consider the murals offensive, but he still thinks the murals offer an opportunity for reflection and discussion.

Metro Birmingham NAACP President Hezekiah Jackson and others have said that should happen in a museum instead of a courthouse lobby.

“I just believe they are symbols of a time that has long passed,” Jackson said during a presentation to the commission last week.

Birmingham Museum of Art Senior Curator Graham Boettcher said in an email that he and Horace Ballard, the museum’s curator of education, have met with the commission and will work with county leaders to find a solution “that both respects and addresses the concerns of the community, while realizing the artistic value and educational opportunities the murals present.”

Artwork is influenced by political, cultural and aesthetic time periods and also can reflect an artist’s beliefs, Boettcher said. He said interpretive materials are often necessary.

“These materials can take many forms: labels, signage, touch-screen interactives, brochures, plaques, and so forth,” he said. The murals in the courthouse aren’t accompanied by any of these.

Linda Nelson of the Jefferson County Historical Commission has suggested installing educational materials near the pieces and a third mural documenting Southern progress. Jackson told the commission he’s open to that idea.

Nelson and Flynt say they understand the emotions that the artwork stirs, but they would rather preserve reminders of the region’s past than wipe it away.

“What, as a historian, I find wrong about that is this no longer allows us to have a conversation about the way we were,” Flynt said. “And the way we were is the problem.”


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