Facing History Mural

Posted by Memphis Mural Brigade, Aug 16, 2017 0 comments

This post is part of our Public Art Network 2017 Year in Review blog salon.

On the Invisible World-Changers amongst us

At the beginning of this project, I thought about how murals serve as tools to strengthen narratives about place. This “Upstanders Mural” is no exception. In addition to strengthening the narrative of Memphis as a place of Civil Rights struggle and heroism, this mural should shift the narrative. It should widen the scope of the history of Memphis’ civic engagement from one predominantly focused on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to one that includes a wider range of Memphis activists and “upstanders.”


When participants see their story played out on stage, they feel not only acknowledged as valid, but celebrated and embraced by a community composed of actors and fellow audience members.


Sometimes I tell my students that I think there shouldn’t be a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. These are fighting words in this town. For students who give me a moment to explain before descending on me, I tell them we should instead celebrate Barbara Johns Day. Students ask, “Who?” and I say, “Exactly!” Barbara Johns was the niece of Vernon Johns, the Alabama preacher who preceded King at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. In 1951, at the age of 16, Johns led a strike at her Virginia high school, a dilapidated, all-black rural school. The strike and aftermath evolved into the only student-initiated pillar of the five court cases forming Brown v. Board of Education. The courage Johns displayed and her hidden history speaks of the danger of historical narratives of “Great, gifted, touched-by-god, heroic leaders” like Gandhi, MLK, Nelson Mandela, etc.—narratives that tend to eclipse the more accessible activism of less idealized agents of change.

A Jewish sociology professor with whom I shared a beer at a pub in Quebec told me of his research on “The Genealogy of Kindness.” His research put forth the theory that people are working almost invisibly all around us, serving others, improving the state of the world. If we were to see them all, if we were to take in the enormous scale of this activity, we would be more prone to roll up our sleeves and join them.

In an interview about his filmmaking, director Ken Loach said he avoids the close-up. He believes close-ups take faces and monumentalize them, enlarging them to heroic size, and in doing so, puts a person on a pedestal as greater-than. This contradicts his socialist value structure in which all people are equal.

These ideas kicked around in my head as I considered the call for proposals for the “Upstanders Mural” put out by Facing History and Ourselves and the Memphis Urban Art Commission. I was reluctant to make large, god-like heads of Memphis activists. It seemed particularly wrong to monumentalize people who distinguished themselves by being particularly selfless and for caring deeply about the smallest, most disenfranchised in our community.

At one point, I played with a mural composition featuring life-sized images of the individuals in the mural with enlargements of each of their heads, so that it would be clear that they were not big—they were just being looked at through magnifying glasses.

On Witnessing, Inclusion and the Power of Public Depiction

A few months ago, I attended a theater performance carried out by an activist theater organization, Playback Memphis. When we feel that our story is truly heard, we feel real and valid. Playback takes this further when the theater troupe enacts stories from the audience with actors on stage. When participants see their story played out on stage, they feel not only acknowledged as valid, but celebrated and embraced by a community composed of actors and fellow audience members.

A month or so before we started working on production of the mural, I was reclining in the dentist chair and my dentist asked me what I was working on. I told him about the mural. He was familiar with it and explained that his wife had nominated her mother to be one of the Memphis Upstanders depicted. Her mother, by all accounts a remarkable woman, was a Holocaust survivor who visited schools in Memphis and told her story. My dentist told me that the selection committee didn’t choose his mother-in-law and his wife was disappointed. I told him we were adding many faces to the dozen required portraits and we could add his mother-in-law. Excited, he told me I should talk with his wife. I met with her and she brought out a folder of photographs and newspaper articles about her mother. Showing them to me, she wiped away tears. She was overjoyed to have her mother depicted in the mural. On several occasions members of the Memphis Jewish community have expressed their appreciation for the inclusion of images of Jewish Memphians on a public wall, affirming the existence and relevance of a Jewish Community in this city.

We screen-printed portraits of Memphis citizens onto Polytab and created a grid of local faces. Many of the people were selected randomly and I like to think that some portraits captured (unintentionally) the secret activists among us. Other portraits we sought out especially because we wanted to acknowledge lives of service. Of these I was especially pleased to include a set of local super-heroes, six employees of Juvenile Court I have come to know in the past two years. Two weeks after completion, I received an email from the Juvenile Court contingent that included a photograph of them, dressed up, posing in front of their likenesses in the mural. 

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