By William C. Singleton III
For The Birmingham Times
They came not just to paint letters on a downtown Birmingham street but to paint history.
City workers and volunteers throughout the Birmingham metropolitan area, both white and black, and some from as far away as Chicago, donned paint rollers and filled in letters outlined on First Avenue South between 16th and 17th streets near Railroad Park.Volunteers from all over came together to paint a Black Lives Matter Street mural at Railroad Park.When completed, the letters would spell “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in bold “Alabama Yellow” traffic paint.
Fairfield resident Diane Bivens, 58, who brought her three grandchildren ages 5, 7 and 12, said her family’s involvement was beyond helping with a paint project. “It’s so much more than just painting letters,” she said. “It’s reminding the world that Black Lives Matter too. It doesn’t always seem to me that other cultures realize how important our history is and what our forefathers did to pave the way for us. While painting the street, I was thinking about how our forefathers fought for our rights so that we can vote, so that we can live wherever we want, so that our children could get a great education, so we can be treated with respect.”
Birmingham joined a list of U.S. cities that have used art to express frustrations over the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man who was asphyxiated as a white Minneapolis police officer held his knee to Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, despite Floyd’s pleas that he couldn’t breathe. Captured on video and circulated throughout the Internet and social media, the incident sparked protests and riots nationwide and calls for police reform, the removal of Confederate statues and symbols from public venues and greater concern for the injustices Black Americans experience.
Washington, D.C. was the first city to paint a “BLACK LIVES MATTER” mural on one of its main thoroughfares – Pennsylvania Avenue, the street leading to the White House. A Sacramento, Calif., artist, joined by other volunteers, painted a similar sign on the city’s Capitol Mall in front of the capitol building. And in Oakland, a “#BLACKLIVESMATTERS” mural was painted along three city blocks.
In Birmingham, the idea behind the Black Lives Matter mural came from two people who had not known each other prior to the project, according to the Birmingham Mayor’s Office. Cara McClure, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Birmingham, and Shawn Fitzwater, owner of Fitz Hand Painted Signs, both came up with the idea of painting a mural on a Birmingham street and contacted the Mayor’s Office. Both were inspired by the mural in D.C. “I like the spirit in which it was done,” McClure said, noting how the message both affirmed the Black Lives Matter movement and thumbed its nose at the president. Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin merged McClure’s and Fitzwater’s ideas and enlisted the services of the city’s transportation department to bring the project to fruition.
“I am thankful Black Lives Matter Birmingham, the mural artists and community joined together for this positive message. The spirit of solidarity during the street painting over those two days were powerful,’’ Woodfin said.
The city used about 100 gallons of paint to create the 34-by-380 mural – paint the city already had in stock. The mayor discussed with McClure and a group called “I Believe in Birmingham” about possible sites for the street mural.
McClure said she initially wanted the mural on a street outside the Jefferson County courthouses. “I wanted it to be where folks who make decisions for black lives could see it every time they went into their offices,” she said. However, she was satisfied with the compromise. “Folks who are attending the Barons baseball game; folks who live down there or who have companies there can see the mural and be reminded that Black Lives Matter,” McClure said. “It’s a great location.”
Fitzwater helped oversee citizen volunteers eager to help paint. “I’m just going to manage the volunteer portion of the project, so we don’t have paint flying all across the streets,” he said. “I’m just trying to make sure everybody’s staying within the lines.” Though he and other muralists he works with have painted other murals around the city, “This is the biggest project I’ve been involved in as far as painting,” Fitzwater said. Fitzwater, city workers and volunteers focused their efforts into two days of work – June 17 and June 18 – because the mayor wanted the street mural finished by Juneteenth, June 19 – the holiday first celebrated in Texas when slaves learned two-and-half years after the Civil War and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation that they had been set free.
McClure said she views the mural as a message of freedom similar to the message federal troops brought to slaves in Texas who didn’t know they were free. “It’s a symbol of freedom,” she said. “It’s a symbol of small wins and freedom for black folks.”
If any city should have a street tribute to Black Lives Matters it should be Birmingham, a strategic battle ground for non-violent protests against racial segregation, Fitzwater said.
“I think it’s very important to stand behind this message especially here in Birmingham with our history,” he said. “I think it’s very important to have this message to support the changes going on in our nation and our world right now. It’s a great message and I stand behind it.”
The diverse group of volunteers had a number of reasons for participating.
Ashley Robbins, 45, of Hoover, said she wanted “to be a part of this. It’s a really big deal especially for Alabama and our history.”
Gemetra Pearson, 74, a self-described “Foot Soldier” who participated in Civil Rights demonstrations in the 60s, said although much has changed, blacks are still fighting for their rights in other ways.
“When it comes down to this sign ‘BLACK LIVES MATTER,’ . . . this is a reminder we’re here, we’re not going anywhere, and we want our rights,” she said.
Amanda Blake Turner, freelance artist and art educator with Birmingham city schools, said she heard about the project through a Facebook page for The Birmingham Art Collective. Though art is her passion and profession, the message motivated her to offer her talents and services, she said.
“I’m passionate about this message and the way it’s bringing down barriers, bringing down walls,” Turner said. “We had people from all walks of life out here. This is just another opportunity to share with the community something beautiful, something uniting, something positive. … It’s not just a movement for Black Lives Matter; it’s a movement of unity and empathy and banning together in our generation to make a difference, and I think we’re seeing that all over the country.”
Updated at 1:32 a.m. on 7/2/2020 with quotes from the mayor.