Tag Archives: Montgomery Alabama

Peace and Justice

The Sunday morning church bells were pealing as I walked away from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, but the words that were ringing in my ears were those of artist and 2018 MacArthur Fellow Titus Kaphar:

We’re having a national conversation right now about public monuments. And in this discussion … we have this sort of binary conversation about keeping these sculptures up or taking them down. And I actually think that that binary conversation is problematic. I think there is another possibility, and I think that possibility has to do with bringing in new work that speaks in conversation with this old work. It’s about a willingness to confront a very difficult past…

Kaphar made that statement as part of a radio interview on NPR and I thought it was perhaps the most coherent and rational statement I’ve yet heard about our ongoing conversation about controversial history and what to do with the monuments that commemorate it.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, better known – unfortunately – as “the lynching memorial,” is an important project of Equal Justice Initiative (www.museumandmemorial.eji.org), founded by Montgomery-based attorney Bryan Stevenson. It is an outdoor memorial to over 4000 known African American lynching victims between the years 1877 and 1950. The names (or lynching date, if the name is unknown) are engraved on over 800 slabs representing each U.S. county in which a lynching is documented during those years.

The Memorial sits on a six-acre site overlooking Montgomery. The main structure is entered after taking a winding path up a hill with informational narratives at regular intervals. Upon entering the main structure, the first slabs sit at eye level. There are clearly visible names of counties and states and the victims and lynching date for each. Gradually, the floor begins a gradual rake and the slabs hang over the visitors’ heads, suggesting the hanging bodies of the victims. It’s not hard to recall Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, in which the wall starts slowly at your feet and gradually towers over the viewer as one walks deeper into the war.

At one end of the Memorial for Peace and Justice is a water wall with words of comfort and dedication. This, too, reminds one of the Civil Rights Memorial, a few blocks away at the Southern Poverty Law Center, also by Maya Lin, with its water rushing over the framing wall and the black granite table marking the deaths of Civil Rights martyrs (www.splcenter.org.what-we-do/civil-rights-memorial/history).  

In the middle of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a peaceful grassy hill. Stopping there, one sees the skyline of modern Montgomery through the slabs – even catching a glimpse of the Capitol dome at times. Standing there, one is surrounded by the silence of the victims memorialized in the stark slabs hanging from every side.

As one leaves the memorial, there are rows of identical slabs for each county represented in the Memorial, waiting to be claimed by the designated county when it has documented its movement to rectify the issues that lead to the lynchings within its borders.

In my home city of Birmingham, a monument to Confederate veterans has stood for 113 years in the city’s Linn Park downtown. For the past several years, its base was blocked by a black plywood barrier erected by a previous city administration. The fate of that monument has been tied up in legal battles for years. Here’s my modest proposal: Take down the plywood box, keep the Confederate monument where it’s been for over a century, and hang Jefferson County’s slab of lynching victims beside it. Let them interact and let the observers begin to interpret and heal.

In downtown Montgomery, in the entertainment district now called “The Alley,” one may find the EJI’s “Legacy Museum,” which places our national lynching history in more context and documentation. Both the Memorial and the Legacy Museum are touching and transformative memorials to a history that is too often overlooked.

Too often, I find that our national history is narrowed down to the victimized and the guilty. The EJI’s well-documented and striking efforts seem to go beyond that — to spotlight uncomfortable history without placing blame on the descendants whose hands were not involved.

I hope for a day when we might remember our history without being forced to wallow in it.

Montgomery is a city full of history, museums, and memorials – to the Confederacy, to Civil Rights, … to Hank Williams. These latest powerful Montgomery memorials document a history that we must never forget. But neither should we wallow in the shame and guilt of it. We should – together – work toward a future in which the sins of the past may never be forgotten, but neither should they be exploited to expedite and fuel the sins of the future.

Artist Titus Kaphar has a powerful piece called “Doubt” in the Legacy Museum. He should have the last word:

I think one of our challenges is that we sort of consistently try to make public sculpture in a way that it’s a sentence with a period at the end. And inevitably it’s not — it’s a comma, and there should be a clause after that. 

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The Legacy of Mose T

dscn0706 Moses Tolliver (c. 1920-2006), more popularly known as Mose T, is one of the best-known of Alabama’s many self-taught artists. During the years that I lived in Montgomery, I would often see the artist sitting on the front porch of his house on Sayre Street when I would go to Martha’s Place, a soul food place a few doors down from Mose.

I heard that visitors often went by the house and invited themselves in to Mose’s place to check out the art and occasionally buy pieces. Each time I saw him sitting on the porch I considered going up to chat but it seemed rude to just drop by without asking or an invitation.

Moses Tolliver started painting in the 1960s. Most sources say he started painting after a work-related injury left him crippled and unable to continue his job in a furniture shipping warehouse. Mose T always said that he painted prior to the accident but that the accident left him more time to devote to his painting. Either way, a colleague at the furniture company, who painted as a hobby, suggested that Tolliver take painting lessons. Tolliver rejected the lessons and continued to develop his own style in his pictures. He often said that he wasn’t interested in “art,” just in making “pictures.”

The first pictures Mose T made and sold featured a red cardinal as the subject. Throughout his life he painted many subjects including birds, snakes, fantastical animals, buses, watermelons and other fruit, erotic pictures of women straddling bicycles and tricycles and assorted objects, self-portraits and portraits of historic persons, and a world of imaginative, colorful paintings on an assortment of topics. His self-portraits feature him standing on crutches and he sometimes mixed his own hair in with the paint. dscn0705

The paintings are brightly and boldly colored; house paint on plywood seems to be his preferred medium but he also painted on random objects including tree stumps, Masonite, cardboard, table tops, and jigsaw puzzles.

I became aware of Mose T when I first started seeing museum shows featuring artists, usually self-taught, who operate outside the mainstream art establishment. It was around that time when one of the Birmingham-based department stores (either Parisian or Pizitz) promoted a line of tee-shirts carrying images of Mose T’s distinctive watermelon paintings.

Collecting original Mose T paintings is challenging. As the demand for his work increased he began to let some of his children do the paintings and he’d sign them if he approved of them. He had thirteen children and it is known that his daughter, Annie, and two of his sons, Jimmy and Charles, created works that Mose T signed and sold. dscn0702

Eventually Annie Tolliver began to sign her works as “Annie T” and developed her own distinct style and Jimmy and Charles began to produce their own work. I received a gift some years ago of a watermelon in the Tolliver style that was signed “Mose T Jr.” I was confused about the painting’s origins so when I purchased an “Annie T” watermelon from Annie Tolliver herself I mentioned that I had a watermelon signed “Mose T. Jr” and wondered who painted it. “That’s my brother,” she replied tersely and returned to another customer. I still don’t know which brother signed the painting but I assume it’s either Jimmy or Charles. dscn0694

Even though watermelons are Tolliver’s most iconic image, my attention was drawn to another subject to which he frequently returned: buses. The bus as subject matter for a Montgomery-based artist is evocative of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott which is such a seminal part of Civil Rights-era lore. I once read Mose T quoted as saying he preferred to paint empty buses but that people seemed to like them with people in them so that’s why he added people.

While I lived in Montgomery, I began to search out an empty Mose T bus for purchase. I did find one that I liked at a dealer but the price was prohibitive at the time and by the time I returned the painting had been sold.

Later, at another dealer, I spotted a bus with passengers with a price I could consider. It’s a green bus held up by four big black tires with muddy green swirls for hubs. A driver carries three passengers. All four have their legs dangling down and their arms sticking out. One can’t help but think of Mose T’s bird paintings with the four men’s arms resembling bird legs and their mouths that recall bird beaks. Each sports a broad-brimmed hat. I thought about it for a couple of days and went back to the dealer and owned it.

I had hoped to find an empty bus for the Tolliver collection but I really enjoy my frolicsome bus with its passenger load. I have no idea if Mose Tolliver painted it or just signed it but, either way, I love to look at it. And when you live with art, loving what you look at every day is the most important element, I think.

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Note: A great resource for learning about many of the self-taught Alabama artists is Kathy Kemp’s Revelations: Alabama’s Visionary Folk Artists (Crane Hill Publishers, 1994) with abundant photographs by Keith Boyer.