Ban the Klan
In 1999, a group spray-painted the panel with the phrase “Ban the Klan.” And in 2002, the school’s Black Student Union fought to have the murals covered. In response, the university collected 30 student complaints
, and presented them to the chancellor. Unlike Lieber, the students weren’t looking to whitewash Indiana’s history. Rather, they said the panel lacked context, and was inappropriate for a classroom setting. Moreover, on a campus marked by incidents of racism, the image was disturbing and alienating.
“To have a painting in Woodburn Hall of such a degrading group is an insult to my ancestors as well as my culture, [and] I cannot go to a school that promotes diversity, and yet has a painting of such a group,” one testimony read.
Another student voiced cited the effect of the murals on a campus starkly lacking in diversity: “The KKK in the mural is made even more offensive by me being a minority in a class where I am the only face of color. It is located in a classroom and I find that unfair and inappropriate.”
When Al Sharpton, a 2004 candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, visited the campus, he said the panel should be moved to a museum, not shown in a public university hall where students are forced to sit in front of an illustration that surfaces historical trauma, eliciting visceral pain.
Immediately after Sharpton’s visit, former IU President Adam Herbert defended the murals. “As a black man who lived through the segregated realities of the South, I think it is important that there be a reminder of what we had to live through: the pain, the suffering, the fear,” Herbert told the Associated Press
Proponents also point out that removing the mural section would cause irreparable physical damage. But more debatably, they echo Benton’s original argument: If the work is instigating conversation, that’s only a reason for keeping it up.
“The fact that people are still having reactions [to the murals] tells me that we clearly haven’t moved beyond race issues in this country,” Brewer says. “These issues remain relevant.”
In 2002, the year the BSU attempted have the murals removed or covered, a police officer was suspended for sketching a drawing of the KKK staring down a well at a black man. At the time, Chancellor Sharon Stephens Brehm acknowledged that despite IU’s pledged commitment to diversity, the university had fallen short.
“[Having these murals is] particularly discomforting on a campus where African American students are only 4 percent of our student body and 4 percent of our faculty,” Brehm said, after which she called for “more diverse art” on campus, and announced that her office would provide $1.2 million over four years towards programs geared to diversifying faculty and students.
Today, Brewer recognizes the validity of the negative reactions, but stresses the importance of context. “When you first see the [KKK] and don’t know the meaning [of the mural], I understand why you would react negatively,” Brewer says.
An informal video teachers can show and panels accompanying the work explain that while the 9th panel depicts the KKK, it also illustrates how the Indianapolis Times investigated the Klan’s racketeering and corruption in Indiana’s state elections. The reporting earned the newspaper the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1928. And the murals also show Indiana’s integrated healthcare system through a young black girl being treated at a hospital.
Ultimately, good intentions cannot dictate subsequent reactions or sentiments. And while there haven’t been any larger debates or demonstrations around the murals in the past few years, the absence of protest does not mean there is no discomfort or that underlying inequity no longer exists.
Despite Brehm’s directives, the campus is still overwhelmingly white, as only 3.9% of students and 3.3% of faculty are African Americans. Indeed, the work’s “context” doesn’t just include the rest of the mural’s message; that would require addressing the both inequality on campus and racist hatred in the country at large. Some students will perhaps read the informational panel outside the room, knowing what they will see on their first day of class; some will wander in for a lecture one afternoon, unprepared for what their eyes will meet. And still for others, it might make no difference.