Petition calls for the removal of an IU Bloomington mural depicting a KKK rally

(INDY STAR) -- Supporters of an online petition are calling for the removal of artwork displayed in an Indiana University-Bloomington lecture hall that depicts a Ku Klux Klan rally. 

The petition, started around two weeks ago, calls upon IU President Michael McRobbie and the IU Board of Trustees to remove one panel of the 22-panel mural. The panel, housed in Woodburn Hall, depicts a cross burning in front of a church and several Klansmen dressed in white robes.

The petition says the mural violates the university's diversity statement. As of Tuesday afternoon, the petition had 902 of 1,000 required signatures before it can be presented to McRobbie and the IU Board of Trustees. 

"It is past time that Indiana University take a stand and denounce hate and intolerance in Indiana and on IU's campus," the petition reads.

The petition cites unrest in Charlottesville, Va., when violence erupted at a "Unite the Right" rally to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park. Statues also have been moved or removed in Austin, Texas, Baltimore and Lexington, Ky., among other cities.

In Indianapolis, City-County council members have called on the parks and recreation department to move a statue memorializing the deaths of more than 1,600 Confederate prisoners of war.

The IU mural, created by Thomas Hart Benton in 1933 for the Chicago World's Fair, has been on display on the Bloomington campus since 1941, according to the university. IU President Herman B Wells had the piece installed in the IU Auditorium, the IU Theater (now IU Cinema) and Woodburn Hall. 

The 10th cultural panel, titled “Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press," is housed in Woodburn Hall Room 100, the largest lecture hall on campus. The Klan is included as a reference to the organization's political strength in the state in the early 1920s, according to Indiana University historian James Capshew

The panel celebrates reporters at the Indianapolis Times who won the 1928 Pulitzer Prize for their work exposing political corruption and breaking the Klan's stronghold in the state, Capshew said. 

Jacquline Barrie, 32, of Florida, who is leading the petition effort, said she couldn't recall hearing much about the mural when she was a student at the university several years ago. A Facebook post about this particular panel from a former professor caught her eye and made her think about what she could do about the installation. 

She said she originally started the petition as a way to learn others' opinions about the panel. She told IndyStar that she believes the university has a responsibility to do something to address student and faculty discomfort. 

"I think that allowing it to stay sends the wrong message," she said, "because in my experience, sometimes the fact that a symbol of hate or something as simple as a picture can sometimes, to some people, be justification for those kind of acts."

She said the ideal scenario would be to remove the panel in question. If that's not possible, she said the whole mural should be removed and put in a museum for educational purposes. 

"Talk about the controversy surrounding it, talk about the history of racism in Indiana, make it a learning opportunity," she said. "Because as it sits right now, it’s just sitting in a classroom."

The university acknowledges that the panel troubles some students but says the mural is "a reminder and testimonial to an unsavory and criminal portion of Indiana’s history," said Ryan Piurek, IU's assistant vice president for public affairs and presidential communications. 

"We realize that some students may feel uncomfortable by the depiction in the murals and that this might affect their ability to study and focus," he said. "Additionally, we recognize that in the wake of the recent ugly and tragic events in Charlottesville, Va., students may be experiencing feelings of anger, upset, hurt, anxiety, discrimination and even fear.

"IU is strongly committed to a safe, welcoming and inclusive environment for all of our students and people of all backgrounds. IU also stands in solidarity with citizens and groups across our nation who oppose a supremacist ideology of bigotry, hatred, violence, intimidation and assault on our liberties." 

James Wimbush, vice president for diversity, equity and multicultural affairs, said the panel does not violate the university's diversity statement but does offer a teachable moment.

"It does not glorify or celebrate this particular dark episode of the KKK in Indiana, but instead shows that the state’s past has shameful moments the likes of which we do not want to see again, ever," he said. "It’s important to understand the state’s history — the good and the bad." 

Capshew, the historian, said he applauds people who feel the need to make a change post-Charlottesville, but IU's murals should be discussed in their proper historical context. 

He said that the piece is anti-Klan and that Benton was a progressive who was simply documenting the history of Indiana.

"It’s not like a Confederate monument that was erected in the 19-teens or '20s that was specifically to enforce Jim Crow practices and basically put blacks in their place again," he said. "So it is very different than what’s going on in Charlottesville and other places."

He added that the mural itself is not a record of IU's record of diversity or race relations. 

"It tells a story," he said. "And it’s not a story about what’s going on at Indiana University.
It’s about what happened in the 1920s in Indiana, and if we don’t remember that story, then we might repeat that."

In 2012, the university created a video detailing the murals' history and its placement at IU: 

Indy Star


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