Black Student Union Wants Klan Mural Removed
Some students at Indiana University are pressing school officials to remove a mural that has been hanging in a classroom since 1941, saying the image of Ku Klux Klan members and a burning cross creates a hostile learning environment.
The 12-foot-square painting by the late artist Thomas Hart Benton, one of 26 murals commissioned by the General Assembly in 1932 to depict Indiana’s history, has become a rallying cry for the university’s Black Student Union.
Members say the painting hanging in Woodburn Hall symbolizes the problems on campus for minorities, while others say removing it would be costly and could damage the mural.
“Students understand that art is controversial,” said Marshawn Wolley, Black Student Union president, earlier this month. “But in a classroom where I’m trying to learn about psychology or political science, I don’t need to be confronted with images of the Ku Klux Klan to be enlightened.”
Chancellor Sharon Brehm promised about 60 students at a town hall meeting earlier this month that she would decide the painting’s fate by the end of the month.
“We’re very committed to diversity. We want all of our students to feel comfortable on campus,” Brehm says. “Also, we want to be a campus known for freedom of artistic and intellectual expression.”
The Black Student Union, which has complained of too few minority students and faculty members, verbal harassment and a lack of events and funds for Blacks on campus, decided to tackle the issue after several students complained.
Members have complained to the university’s racial incidents team and are considering legal action and protests, depending on the school’s response.
Of 35 complaints to the racial incidents team, all but four favor covering the mural during classes or removing it for display in a museum or elsewhere on campus with the rest of the Benton murals, says Pam Freeman, director of IU’s office of student ethics and anti-harassment programs. Four people said IU should not touch it.
A plaque placed near the mural explained that it was not intended to glorify the Klan. The university also created a video about 10 years ago to educate students about Benton’s work and the mural to stress that he was trying to depict a negative point in state history.
Faculty members who taught in the room were ordered to show the video to students, but Freeman and Black students said the video is rarely shown.
“The effort to educate has failed,” says Freeman, who agreed the mural should be moved. “The emotional turmoil it causes to see that image is very distracting.”
White students and other minority students also are speaking out in favor of moving the mural.
“I understand the history of it, and I don’t want to hide it,” says junior Brian Daviduk, 20, who is White. “But you go to school to learn and become educated. If the mural hinders that, it doesn’t have a place in the classroom.”
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