Since the day it was unveiled in 2001, lawyers and activists have tried to get it removed or relocated, repeatedly asking why images of the KKK, in any context, have been allowed to hang in the halls of justice.
Now, as the country’s attention is urgently attuned to the issue of Confederate monuments and racist symbols, they’re asking yet again.
On Monday, the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers called on the state’s 8th Circuit Court chief justice to immediately remove the mural from the Baker County Courthouse. The association said while the mural is supposed to represent the county’s culture and history, portions of it are “a reprehensible reminder of an unjust and racist past in our area” that has no place in a judicial building.
“In a courthouse, which is a particular building made for dispensing justice, everyone who goes through the courthouse has to feel they’re going to be treated fairly,” Mitch Stone, president of the association, told The Washington Post. “And to depict something in a courthouse mural that is the antithesis of that is just not appropriate. They really need to consider how somebody of color would feel seeing [three KKK members] if they were walking into that courthouse.”
Eighth Circuit Chief Judge James P. Nilon could not immediately be reached for comment, nor could Baker County Commissioner James Bennett, the chairman of the board of commissioners that has listened to complaints about the mural in recent days.
This is at least the third attempt by lawyers and activists to relocate or remove the mural from the courthouse since it was completed in 2001 by artist Gene Barber, who died in 2005.
The painting depicts everything from the area’s earliest indigenous tribes to a bloody Civil War battle and the proliferation of turpentine distilleries. Barber wrote a guidebook describing his historical depiction in each of the painting’s 43 panels, archived by the Baker County Historical Society. His entry for the KKK image does not mention anything about the group’s extensive and brutal history of racial terror. It instead describes the KKK as a solution to “lawlessness,” saying in part:
“Lawlessness among ex-slaves and troublesome whites was the rule of the day. No relief was given by the carpetbag and scalawag government or by the Union troops. The result was the emergence of secret societies claiming to bring law and order to the county. One of these groups was the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that sometimes took vigilante justice to extremes but was sometimes the only control the county knew over those outside the law. The Klan faded from view at the end of Reconstruction. It had minor comebacks in the 1920’s and mid 1950’s. Since then it has become the subject of legend rather than a cause of fear.”
In 2001, then-8th Circuit Chief Judge Stan Morris refused to allow the mural to be hung directly outside his second-story courtroom — for the very reason the painting is facing heat today. Instead, the county apparently compromised by hanging it by the main entrance on the first floor, where government offices are located, the Florida Times-Union reported in 2015.
Barber was indignant. He accused Morris of taking issue with “some undeniable facts of history” and said other detractors wanted to revise history, according to a statement archived by the historical society. He saw the debate over his mural as a symptom of the “currently popular polarization of the races.”
“I did not follow the current and unfortunate fad of revising history for the sake of making it fit the wishes of any special interest segment of society,” he wrote in a note accompanying the painting upon completion, the Miami Herald reported in 2001. “I avoided as carefully as possible interpreting the past using our contemporary standards. The history of the county is here … warts and roses and all.”
For protesters as well as lawyers, however, the issue isn’t so much the inclusion of the KKK in a mural about the county’s history, but the mural’s location. In courthouses, Confederate imagery has faced especially loud calls to come down. Stone said he is sympathetic to concerns about preserving history — “but there is a time and a place for everything.” Courthouses, he said, are not the places to remember the KKK.
In Baker County, lawyers and activists unsuccessfully tried to get the mural removed in 2015, after white supremacist Dylann Roof massacred nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C.
Last week, they marched outside the courthouse again, and then voiced their opposition to the courthouse mural during a county commissioners’ meeting on July 7.
“Let’s be clear. We’re not here because we have an issue with the mural. We are here because have an issue with the Ku Klux Klan on the mural — in the courthouse,” Baker County resident Kaila Givens said during the virtual meeting.
“The KKK symbolism is not needed for the mural to reflect the county’s history,” she continued. “Some say it was the artist’s intent to show the bad side of Baker County. It doesn’t matter what the intent was. It matters that as a taxpayer I have the right to not be forced to relive this painful part of history every time I enter a building that I pay for.”
One resident who spoke during the meeting in support of keeping the mural there, Joshua Mullens, took Barber’s view, saying “We feel there will always be aspects of history that some will consider offensive and when you start removing offensive history it does not take long before it is no longer history but instead a mere fairy tale.”
Rather than erase it completely, several residents suggested relocating the mural to the Baker County Historical Society or giving it to Barber’s family.
Stone, the president of the state criminal defense lawyers’ association, said it belonged in a museum — anywhere but a court of law.
“If you want to show this was part of our history, okay, it will create discussion, it will create debate, it will make sure people don’t forget,” he said, “but it won’t be a venue where you’re then going to go in and have people decide your fate.”