Jefferson County Courthouse mural controversy reaches commissioners

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — UPDATE: The commission voted unanimously to appoint commissioner Sandra Little Brown as the head of a committee that will decide what to do with the old murals–and come up with a new look for the court house lobby.

“This committees gonna be put together with the arts community, the civil rights community, the Christian community and a broad group of Jefferson Countians. We want to make sure that they have a real sense of love for the county and to do the right thing,” Sandra Little Brown said.

The commission will approve her committee selections at their next meeting.

After that, the group will have four months to come up with a plan.

ORIGINAL: The fight over the future of two murals in the Jefferson County Courthouse is still unfolding. A group of citizens went to the county commission to demand that the wall paintings come down.

The murals in question are roughly two stories tall and they tower over anyone walking into the Jefferson County Courthouse from the Linn Park entrance near 20th Street. The murals dominate the left and right walls.

Mountain Brook native Anne Garland Mahler now lives in Arizona, but she said that she felt strongly enough about the murals to start a nationwide petition to have them removed.

“These murals which were painted in the 1930s romanticize of racial hierarchy in which black people are presented as working at the feet of white people,” said Anne Garland Mahler Asst. Professor University of Arizona. “They basically communicate the basic message of Jim Crow that although industry has changed racial inequality will remain the same.”

President of the Metro Birmingham Branch of the NAACP, Hezekiah Jackson, told the Jefferson County Commission that he remembers going to the courthouse with his mother as a child and hearing her tell him not to look up. Jackson said that the shooting which claimed multiple lives at a Charleston church earlier this year reignited a fire that had smoldered quietly in his heart for years.

“The removal of the murals from the lobby of our Jefferson County Courthouse is the singular mission that we are here to speak to today. It is our opinion that the symbols embrace inhumanity bigotry and division,” said Jackson.

A Thursday zoning meeting of the Jefferson County Commission was packed with people who want to see the murals taken down.

Commissioners Bowman, Carrington, and Brown said they were in favor of removing the monuments.

Commissioners Knight and Stephens had questions about how to handle the process, what to do with the murals, and how to pay for the process. They also raised questions about the subjective nature of how people view art.

“You can reserve the possibility that some may be offended some may not,” said Commissioner Joe Knight to Mahler.

“This isn’t about whether or not the paintings are offensive. It’s about a courthouse where people expect to receive equality and fair treatment and the first thing you see when you walk through the door are two paintings they communicate the exact opposite,” responded Mahler.

County Commission President Jimmie Stephens said that whatever the commission decides, he can’t authorize spending taxpayer dollars to remove the murals. Stephens said the county is still recovering from bankruptcy proceedings and said that the commission would like to discuss how concerned community members could help deal with the murals. He also raised questions about the proper course of action.

“What you view in art as derogatory some other may value for its visual impact,” said Stephens. “We can’t forget where we came from.”

“I think we need to slow down step back and comprehend the cultural significance of these put this in its proper location,” Stephens continued.

Commisioner Carrington recommended using a BP settlement check to handle the removal of the murals.

Commission President Pro-Tem Sandra Little Brown thanked the assembly of concerned citizens and organizational leaders.

The commission did not make a final decision Thursday, but Brown said she supports their mission and promised she would have a plan of action in two weeks.

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