It’s been 56 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., penned his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which makes the case for fighting civil rights battles in the streets as well as the courts. Echoed in the rhetoric of the Black Lives Matter movement, women’s marches, Families Belong Together rallies, and other displays of activism, King’s message resonates clearly today.
While contending with ongoing struggles in urban landscapes from Atlanta to Los Angeles, artists and community organizations understand that the conversation around equal rights—not just with regard to voting but also affordable housing, reproductive rights, marriage equality, and more—shouldn’t be confined to the pages of dusty textbooks. Painted large across half-mile stretches of public walls and multi-story buildings, some in bustling downtowns and others requiring short pilgrimages, the following powerful murals give important context to their surrounding cities and remind visitors and locals alike that the fight for justice never stops.
When Atlanta hosted this year’s Super Bowl LIII, the resulting media coverage gave artists a rare opportunity to bring global attention to civil rights battles that linger in the city, such as voter suppression and racism in the criminal justice system. The murals, new this winter, have become an important part of the city’s civil rights history.
United by a project called Off the Wall, 11 local and national artists covered exterior walls of downtown businesses and community centers in art celebrating civil rights figures past and present. Muhammad Yungai’s “We Shall Always March Ahead” on Sunset Avenue at the border of the English Avenue and Vine City neighborhoods commemorates Atlanta native Martin Luther King, Jr., and other 1950s-era leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Shanequa Gay’s “(Re)Framing Herstory” in Sweet Auburn offers cameo-like portraits of four unsung female African American educators/activists, including Dorothy Lee Thompson, who founded the Domestic Workers Union in 1968, and Selena Sloan Butler, cofounder of the Parent-Teacher Association. Two murals, one on Peters Street Southwest and the other a few blocks away on Mitchell Street Southwest, powerfully rendered in yellow and blue by New Orleans–based visual artist and filmmaker Brandan Odums (aka BMike, best known for his transformative murals in spaces destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and subsequently abandoned) are a response to the community’s concerns about issues facing the next generation, such as gentrification and displacement.
How to see them: The project’s website provides a map of the murals, which are scattered across downtown Atlanta, as well as information about the artists’ inspiration. You can also book walking and biking tours of the project with local company Amazing Atlanta Tours.
View this post on Instagram
...But on the 3rd day, he rose. From the ashes to the masses. #HappyKaeperbowlSunday! @kayashoots @queensempire is holding me down! Feb 3, 2019. 1st entry into the #Kaeperbowl, located at 400 Northside Dr. 6 more to go! #kaeplanta #kaepernick @yourrightscamp @v103atlanta @bbcsport @npr #400NorthsideDr #Atlanta #AtlantaMurals #SuperBowl #Superbowl53 #SuperbowlWeekend #OccasionalSuperstar #Art
The Super Bowl also prompted a series of unplanned murals honoring the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick, who, while playing for the San Francisco 49ers, famously knelt during the national anthem before every game of the 2016 season in a silent protest against police brutality. Two years ago, Atlanta artist Fabian Williams, who paints under the name Occasional Superstar, covered an abandoned building a mile from Mercedes-Benz Stadium with a mural of Kaepernick standing next to Muhammad Ali. When the building was torn down days before the game, Williams quickly put up eight new homages to Kaepernick all over the city—an event he dubbed #kaeperbowl.
“I think that he is the future of what we want to see in civil rights,” Williams told local NPR station WABE.
“Atlanta is the headquarters [for civil rights] but I feel like we’ve been looking back too much. There’s a lot of things that we can do right now to keep this movement going forward and actually achieve the dream.”
How to see them: WABE created a map of the Kaepernick murals, which are mostly outside of the downtown area.
Los Angeles, CA
How would the history of California look different if women and minorities were featured players? This is the question that governs artist Judith Baca’s ambitious, ongoing, decades-long mural project, which covers more than a half-mile of wall in the Tujunga Greenbelt near Griffith Park. Started in the mid-1970s and created with help from more than 400 low-income teenagers employed as assistants, the “Great Wall of Los Angeles” is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the longest murals in the world. It showcases perspectives that don’t often get featured, telling a story of the state decade by decade, from prehistory to the 1950s. There are scenes of the arrival of the Spanish as told through an indigenous lens, as well as uncomfortably honest depictions of Japanese internment camps and the mass deportation of Mexican Americans during the Great Depression. Forty-five years after the first brushstrokes were applied, Baca’s team plans to continue painting this history up to the present day.
How to see it: The Great Wall of Los Angeles is painted on one wall of the Tujunga Wash in North Hollywood. It’s a good addition to a visit to Griffith Park or the NoHo Arts District. Consider starting at Burbank Boulevard and Coldwater Canyon Avenue and walking the overlooking path along the mural’s length to Oxnard Street.
A South Philadelphia charter school is home to the country’s first mural honoring early civil rights activist Octavius Catto, who fought to desegregate the city’s trolley system and integrate baseball before he was killed during Election Day violence in 1871. The commanding head-and-shoulders portrait of Catto by Willis “Nomo” Humphrey and Keir Johnston is five stories tall. It’s one of many works commissioned by the robust Mural Arts Philadelphia program, which has been installing artworks that highlight local community issues on the walls of the City of Brotherly Love for more than 30 years.
Other murals include Russell Craig and Jesse Krimes’s “Portraits of Justice,” which features the faces of those affected by mass incarceration, and “Families Belong Together,” a piece created last summer by Chilean artist Ian Pierce (also known as Artes Ekeko) in response to reports of family separations of asylum seekers at the southern U.S. border.
How to see them: Every year, Mural Arts spearheads 60 to 100 community art projects across Philadelphia, which has become known as “The City of Murals.” Find the Octavius Catto mural on the Universal Charter School in South Philadelphia. Mural Arts offers different themed public and private tours of its many murals throughout the year. Visitors can also find self-guided tours and a Mural Finder Mobile tool on the organization’s website.
Memphis is the city where journalist Ida B. Wells found her voice as an anti-lynching crusader and where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered at the Lorraine Motel in 1968. A six-story-tall mural painted on a downtown parking garage on the corner of Main and Dr. Martin Luter King Jr. Avenue chronicles key sites and figures from this history, although recent controversy surrounding the work is a reminder both of the impermanence of these pieces and of the continued relevance of civil rights issues.
Artists Michael Roy (also known as Birdcap) and Derrick Dent were commissioned by the UrbanArt Commission in 2016 to paint the work as part of the Memphis Heritage Trail. The city later considered taking the artwork down in response to reported complaints about alleged “historical inaccuracies” in the mural, as well as the work’s reference to the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2018, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland decided the mural would stay up—for now.
How to see it: The parking garage that features the mural is located on the corner of Main and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in downtown Memphis.
At a time when housing discrimination is among the country’s most salient civil rights issues, a roughly half-mile-long wall in Detroit stands as a stark reminder of the nation’s history of racial segregation. The divider was constructed in the 1940s to separate a new white development from an established black neighborhood and became known by a number of names, including the Eight Mile Wall and Detroit’s Berlin Wall. In 2006, community activists got together to beautify it with colorful, uplifting murals depicting positive messages of peace and community.
How to see it: The neighborhood around the Eight Mile Wall is still residential, but a section of the divider borders the public Alfonso Wells Memorial Park near Eight Mile Road.
In April 2018, the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice—the nation’s first memorial devoted to examining the legacy of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow—and accompanying Legacy Museum opened in downtown Montgomery. The Alabama capital holds an important place in the history of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s: It was here that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus and was arrested and here, on the steps of the state capitol, that the third and final voting rights march from Selma ended in 1965.
For the demonstration’s 50th anniversary in 2015, Montgomery artist Sunny Paulk created a commemorative mural, a few blocks from the national memorial, that depicts the unforgettable scene of marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
How to see it: Find Paulk’s mural at the corner of Lee Street and Montgomery Street, about a 10-minute walk from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.