NAACP Wants to Remove County Courthouse Mural in Birmingham

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — There is a debate brewing over several elements in and outside of the Jefferson County Courthouse.

The first is a set of two murals inside the old Jefferson County Courthouse. Some say the murals are offensive and racist; others tell us the artwork has historical value.

The murals are on the walls of the Linn Park side entrance into the courthouse. One image depicts the “New South” and its industrial side. The other mural is supposed to represent the “Old South” and features plantation owners on horseback while slaves work in fields.

A group with the local chapter of the NAACP is scheduled to present an argument to the entire Jefferson County Commission on Thursday. They will ask for the murals to be removed.

Commissioner Sandra Little Brown has worked with the group and heard their concerns. She said she agrees the murals need to go.

“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,” Commissioner Sandra Little Brown said.

A representative with the Jefferson County Historical Commission disagrees.

“We can’t go around erasing the artifacts of history,” Linda Nelson with the Jefferson County Historical Commission said.

Linda Nelson says the murals have historical value; in large part because of the artist, John Warner Norton. She says at the time he was nationally renowned and the Jefferson County murals were the last commissioned mural he completed before his death.

“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,” Nelson said.

Some commissioners like Sandra Little Brown suggested the murals be moved to a museum. Nelson suggested putting up a plaque explaining when the murals were created.

The NAACP’s presentation will be at the Jefferson County Commission meeting Thursday at 1:30 p.m. It is open to the public.

Amid talk of removing the mural, the county commission president wants to remove something else: A design etched into stone columns flanking the staircase which resembles swastikas.

Nelson pointed out that the courthouse was designed and built before the swastika was considered a symbol of hate.

“It a real cross design that was misused and abused by the Nazis,” Nelson said.

Members of the Birmingham Jewish Federation agree with Nelson’s viewpoint.

“(We) certainly don’t believe that the presence there suggests that Jefferson County believes in any of the anti semitic sentiments that today are regularly, and understandably, associated with the swastika,” said Daniel Odrezin, the assistant executive director of the BJF. “We’re certainly appreciative of the sensitivity of members of the commission. Given the anti semitism 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.”

Outside the commission chambers are the pictures of five former commissioners who have all been convicted of corruption charges.

Jefferson County Commission president David Carrington says they do not deserve a place of honor.

He says the current commission is building a brand new county and do not need to be defined by the past.

“The day I was sworn into my officer as president of my four immediate predecessors, two were in a federal penitentiary and one had pled guilty to perjury. And it’s something this commission has struggled with for 5 years. And it’s time we get our past behind us and we start to look forward.”

The commission will discuss the future of the pictures at the Thursday afternoon meeting.

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