World-Changing Images

By Jadyn Kilgore

In 2018, the Jefferson County Courthouse in Birmingham, Alabama, received a third mural in its entrance entitled Justice is Blind [Figure 3]. This mural was created by Ronald McDowell, who was commissioned by Jefferson County. Justice is Blind joined two older murals, Old South [Figure 1] and New South [Figure 2], in the Jefferson County Courthouse foyer. McDowell’s mural affirmed diversity was commissioned to be a tool of reconciliation and unity. To understand why Justice is Blind was a tool of unity, it is necessary to understand the history behind and surrounding the other two murals.

Figure 3: Justice is Blind (2018) by Ronald McDowell as it is displayed in the Jefferson County Courthouse in Birmingham, Alabama. The mural is displayed in the Jefferson County Courthouse lobby. Photo: Solomon Crenshaw Jr. (2018). 

Jefferson County is the most populous county in Alabama. It is known as “a wonderfully diverse community rich in history” that has “something for everyone” (JCAAL). The county has a plethora of historic sites, but one of the most significant sites is the Jefferson County Courthouse. The Jefferson County Courthouse was built right in the heart of Birmingham in 1932. The current courthouse was designed by Chicago architectural firm of Holabird & Root (BhamWiki). This courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 (BhamWiki) and is known as one of the places Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was imprisoned. The courthouse is considered a landmark and a great place to visit in Jefferson County.

The Old South and New South murals were created in 1932. They were created by John Warner Norton, a Chicago native, who was commissioned by the courthouse architects, Holabird and Root. Norton was a well-known muralist in America. Other murals he is known for are Ceres for the Chicago Board of Trade and those for the Tavern Club in Chicago. The Old South and New South murals focus on the history of slavery, segregation, and hardship amongst African Americans in the State of Alabama. Old South’s main focus is set in the 1800s during the time of slavery. It displays a woman, who can be described as a Lady Antebellum, exalted, with enslaved people working underneath her. The mural shows enslaved people performing one of slaves’ most tasks during the time of slavery, picking cotton. It also shows them harvesting sugarcane, which was known to be a tedious task of manual labor for people who were enslaved. Norton showcased the labor of African Americans during slavery but celebrated the refined manners of the antebellum woman. The New South mural is similar, yet different, than the Old South. The New South focuses more on the industrial labor that it took to develop Birmingham. It shows an enlarged man and industrial workers under his feet. These murals are used to show how history developed in Alabama. Because these murals are considered as two of “the most significant interior features of the building” (BhamWiki), they caused a lot of controversy in Jefferson County.

Figure 1 & 2: Old South and New South (1931) by John W. Norton as it is displayed in the Jefferson County Courthouse in Birmingham, Alabama. These murals are located in the North and South side of the courthouse lobby. Photo via: BhamWiki (2020). 

Controversy 

To fully understand why these images were so controversial, it helps to know that they were created during the Jim Crow Era. Birmingham at the time was a place of segregation and division. The city was not built for minorities, nor did it care for minorities. So to have two murals that focus on those same minorities, put up in a place that is supposed to represent liberty and justice for all, during the time of the Jim-Crow Era, was not okay with a lot of people. Joe Knight, a commissioner in Jefferson County, said that the murals “were created in the Jim Crow Era where the reasoning was such that it is no longer prevalent or acceptable in our society today” (Martin). His perspective was shared by many people. 

Controversy Continued 

People now consider Jefferson County to be a diverse county, so having two murals in its courthouse that depict the oppression of some was scandalous. These murals caused so much conflict that some citizens of Jefferson County wanted to have a protest against the murals. The people called for the murals to be taken out of the courthouse. The people felt that it was disrespectful to have the murals in the courthouse because the courthouse should be a place that executes equal justice for all.

This controversy traveled outside of Alabama and became a nationwide problem. The controversy surrounding the murals became national in 2015 after the shooting at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. People felt that Jefferson County needed “to remove images” that were “deemed offensive and racist” (Edgemon). Petitions were started on Change.org and over time the petition received more and more signatures. These murals even caught the attention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Hezekiah Jackson, a member of the NAACP chapter in Jefferson County, said “it is our opinion that the symbols embrace inhumanity, bigotry, and division” (Cascone). By having the NAACP join the fight in removing the murals, it brought more awareness to people and added fuel to the fire. Even though some people advocated to keep the murals up, the majority fought for them to be taken down. Jefferson County needed a solution and needed it fast. So the commissioners of the county proposed adding a third mural.

Saving Grace

Now it is clear as to why Justice is Blind joined in with the Old South and New South murals. Justice is Blind [Figure 2] depicts where the people of Alabama are today. This mural shows both black and white male and female judges, Linn Park, and the Jefferson County Courthouse. This mural is believed to be a “saving grace” by showing the inclusiveness people were advocating for. Hezekiah Jackson, a member of the NAACP and advocate for the removal of the other two murals, said “I decided that the deliberative process had worked and that we could compromise, and this new mural was the compromise” (Edgemon). The citizens and commissioners of Jefferson County love this mural because they feel that it properly displays the progress we have made as a nation, in terms of race and equality. Even though some people still might feel that the other two murals are controversial and should be taken down, McDowell’s mural helped dismiss a lot of the tension that surrounded the murals in the courthouse.

All three of these murals have a very powerful message. They all fight, stand, and reason for something important in this nation and world. These amazing paintings demonstrate how one can communicate through art. They demonstrate the importance and value of history and also the importance and value of the future. These murals have so much power, that they shook an entire nation. They have made a mark on this nation and will continue to make a mark. The Old South, New South, and Justice is Blind depict the evolution of American history. And for that, these murals should go down in history.

Old South and New South
Medium: Mural
Artist: John W. Norton
Created and Installed: 1931
Location: Jefferson County Courthouse, 716 Richard Arrington Jr Blvd N, Birmingham, AL 35203

Justice is Blind
Medium: Mural
Artist: Ronald McDowell
Created and Installed: 2018
Location: Jefferson County Courthouse, 716 Richard Arrington Jr Blvd N, Birmingham, AL 35203

Works Cited 

BhamWiki. “Jefferson County Courthouse.” Bhamwiki, MediaWiki, 1 July 2020. www.bhamwiki.com/w/Jefferson_County_Courthouse. 

BhamWiki. “Jefferson County Courthouse Murals.” Bhamwiki, MediaWiki, 10 Aug. 2020. www.bhamwiki.com/w/Jefferson_County_Courthouse_murals. 

Cascone, Sarah. “Are Alabama Courthouse Murals Racist.” Artnet News, Artnet News, 7 Oct. 2015. 15 Sept. 2020. news.artnet.com/art-world/controversy-allegedly-racist-alabama-courthouse-murals-3382 68

Edgemon, Erin. “Jefferson County Unveils Mural next to 2 Deemed Offensive.” Al, Advance Local Edition. www.al.com/news/birmingham/2018/04/jefferson_county_unveils_inclu.html. 

Facing History. “Historical Timeline for Facing History Alabama Study Tour.” Facinghistory.org , n.d. 15 Sep. 2020. https://www.facinghistory.org/sites/default/files/Historic_Timeline_Alabama_Study_Tou r_1172017915.pdf 

JCCAL. “Who We Are.” Jefferson County, Alabama, ADA Compliant, 0AD, n.d. 15 Sep. 2020. www.jccal.org/Default.asp?ID=2001. 

Martin, Virginia. “New JeffCo Courthouse Mural Replaces Race-Tinged Message With Race-Blind One.” BirminghamWatch, Institute for Nonprofit News, 25 Apr. 2018. 15 Sep. 2020. birminghamwatch.org/new-jeffco-courthouse-mural-replaces-race-tinged-message-race-b lind-one/

Jadyn Kilgore ’24 was a student in the first-year seminar on Religious Images in Birmingham (UCCA 102) in Samford University Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in Fall 2020.

Published November 23, 2020.

 

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