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Former Prisoner, Ronald McKeithen’s Artwork Kicks Off Juneteenth in Birmingham

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From left: Joi Brown, JCMP; Jim Sokol, art collector and Ronald McKeithen, artist. (Ryan Michaels, For The Birmingham Times)

By Ryan Michaels

The Birmingham Times

Juneteenth in Birmingham kicked off Friday evening at the Historic Arlington House with an art show featuring the works of Ronald McKeithen, who was released last year from prison after 37 years.

The event, Celebrating Freedom, included an art sale as guests listened to live music and ate African food at Arlington Historic House’s first-ever Juneteenth celebration.

“We wanted to own the evening on Friday, the kickoff,” said director of Arlington Historic House Tobi Richards. “Why not here? Celebrating freedom, changing the narrative through education, giving the voiceless a voice and telling Birmingham’s rich history, sharing that rich history.”

At age 21, McKeithen was sentenced to life without parole under Alabama’s “three strikes” law. He devoted decades behind bars to art, learning, and service. Alabama Appleseed took on his case in 2020 and won his release from Donaldson’s Correctional Facility.

McKeithen had to keep busy while incarcerated to avoid succumbing to the darkness of life in prison, he said.

“One of my mottos is, ‘I didn’t have the luxury of being unproductive’ because I saw a lot of guys just doing nothing and really losing their minds, from the boredom, the monotony,” McKeithen, 58, said. “I just kept having to do things. Drawing was just one of them.”

Art by Ronald McKeithen.

McKeithen’s art show served as an example of what Juneteenth celebrates, including the freedom from mass incarceration due to policies like habitual offender laws.

McKeithen pursued countless educational and rehabilitative opportunities during his incarceration, from barbering to meditation to poetry and debate. He also discovered an incredible talent for art. Already, his drawings have been featured on greeting cards and he is exploring ways to use this talent to help support himself.

Joi Brown, head of the Jefferson County Memorial Project, an organization which aims to educate about historic and current injustices against Black people in the United States, said she discovered McKeithen’s work through JCMP.

“Part of our advocacy is giving a voice to the voiceless, so we created a blog on our website called our liberated voices blog,” Brown said. “That is a blog where inmates incarcerated at Donaldson are able to submit anonymous artwork and poetry . . . and Ron was one of those artists that submitted to that blog.”

In addition to McKeithen’s artwork, a local group of musicians led by Christopher M. Clark, provided tunes at the event, and Matt Murphree, Arlington’s chef, curated a selection of African appetizers.