Ku Klux Klan Mural to Remain Hanging In Indiana Classroom
A mural from the 1930s that includes images of the Ku Klux Klan will remain hanging in an Indiana University classroom, despite objections from the university’s Black Student Union (see Black Issues, March. 28).
Chancellor Sharon Stephens Brehm announced the mural’s fate late last month, saying that removing it would be akin to hiding part of the state’s past. She did, however, agree to step up the school’s policy of explaining the mural to incoming students and launched a new fund dedicated to promoting multicultural art across campus.
“I am convinced that moving or covering the mural would be morally wrong because it would, in effect, do what (the artist) refused to do. That is it would hide the shameful aspects of Indiana’s past,” Brehm says.
The mural in question is one of 26 panels painted by Thomas Hart Benton for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. In total, the mural was 250 feet long and gave an artistic rendering of the social and industrial history of the state.
Indiana was a Klan stronghold in the 1920s, and one panel shows several white-hooded Klansmen burning a cross. That image is surrounded by others, including journalists, who eventually broke the political power of the Klan, and nurses caring for both Black and White children.
A plaque placed near the mural explains that it is not intended to glorify the Klan, and professors are supposed to show students a video explaining the work at the start of each semester. But students say that rarely happens, and many complain the mural is a distraction.
“If you are an African American, if you don’t know the history of the mural, if you have no context in which to interpret it, and if you have no choice about seeing it, it’s quite likely this will be an unpleasant and discomforting experience,” Brehm says. “And it’s particularly discomforting on a campus where African American students are only 4 percent of our student body and 4 percent of our faculty.”
So Brehm said she has taken it upon herself to ensure that diversity on the 37,000-student campus is improved.
Her goals include raising $1 million to pay for multicultural art projects; allotting more than $1 million to initiatives aimed at recruiting minority faculty and retaining minority students; and giving an annual “State of Diversity” address each October.
Shannon Walden, political action chairman for the Black Student Union, says Brehm’s commitments to diversity exceeded the group’s expectations.
“Our bigger issue was diversity on campus, but we realized that we had to start small, so that was the mural,” Walden says. “But we didn’t expect this amount of accountability. We can now say the chancellor knows what’s supposed to happen, and she’s responsible for it.”
Brehm also said a new educational video about the mural would be produced with the help of the Black Student Union. The university will make sure the video is shown on the first day of each semester and is followed by a class discussion. Also, each student who will have a class in the lecture room will receive an e-mail explaining the mural.
Dr. Charlie Nelms, IU’s vice chancellor for academic support and diversity, says removing the mural would not have done anything to improve diversity. Growing up in Arkansas, Nelms says he had direct experiences with the Klan.
“Even with those experiences, I believe that when we wipe out the past, you say that is part of the history that did not exist,” Nelms says. “And that is wrong. To me, taking down that mural wouldn’t have fixed anything.”
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