Months after the fight to “take down the Confederate flag” swept the South, in response to the Emanuel A.M.E Church massacre, a new battle is brewing in Jefferson County, Alabama. This week, local NAACP representatives will argue that the mural depicting slavery has no place in the county courthouse. Critics say the swastikas carved into the building should also be removed.
Advocates of taking down the Jefferson County Courthouse mural, which shows slaves picking and carrying cotton while a white man on horseback watches, say the painting is racist and offensive. It currently hangs in the entrance of the building, and is supposed to represent the “Old South.” The mural was installed in 1934, at a time when African Americans in Alabama were very much under the yoke of Jim Crow. The NAACP will ask the courthouse to take it down, Thursday, and has already secured the support of three of the county’s five commissioners.
Commissioner Sandra Little Brown took a strong stance against keeping the mural as is. “This is a place where you come in for justice for all. You come in and pay your taxes. Everybody pays them; Black, White, Hispanic, everybody pays your taxes so you don’t want to see something that caters to a certain group. Way back in 1934? Picking cotton? That time is over now,” she explained to CBS affiliate WIAT.
Likewise, Commission president David Carrington is using the fight over the mural to push for the removal of the swastikas etched into the courthouse’s stone. “I think we need to be very cautious about the images we project to others,” he told WIAT.
Assistant Executive Director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation (BJF) Daniel Odrezin agrees. “We’re certainly appreciative of the sensitivity of members of the commission. Given the antisemitism that’s associated with it today, and obviously given that it’s something that we would welcome if people felt it was appropriate to remove. It’s certainly not something that we, as the Jewish Federation, are calling for,” he said, noting BJF is not officially part of the commissioner’s effort.
But Executive Secretary Linda Nelson of the Jefferson County Historical Commission, established in 1971, maintains that taking the images away will will erase an important part of the county’s past.
“We do have to be sensitive to the meanings of things, but to destroy good art and representative art that comes with the building? It would really be too bad, it would be a great loss,” she said, speaking to WIAT. She argues the mural should be preserved because it was painted by John Warner Norton, a famous artist in his day. And when the swastikas were added to the courthouse stones, they were not viewed as controversial or hateful. Their imagery was tarnished by the Nazis, way after the fact.
“We’re going to rebrand a new Jefferson County,” Brown told ABC 33/40. “It cannot be a new Jefferson County with a 1934 picture of injustice and racism, blacks picking cotton at the feet of white woman. I don’t think the majority of the people in Jefferson County really would want that.”
A similar battle over a painting of a Native American being lynched, which hangs in the South Carolina State House, was waged in July. Critics of another mural of three Ku Klux Klan members on horseback, painted in 2001, also voiced their concerns about its presence in the Baker County Courthouse in Florida.