Arkansas artist V.L. Cox
, who took her "End Hate"
doors of segregation installation to Washington, D.C., weekend before last, has shared her thoughts on the experience, and I am posting them here. She begins with memories of the "Whites Only" and "Coloreds Only" door she saw as a child in her hometown of Arkadelphia, and then talks about the people she met in D.C.
Cox was joined by Paula Morrell
of the radio show "Tales From the South," who recorded visitors to the installation, near the Lincoln Memorial.
V.L. Cox with "End Hate."
Everyone has been asking how the trip to Washington went. It was incredible. It was so overwhelming in fact, I am just now able to sit down and collect my thoughts after decompressing from such an important journey.
This trip originated after I heard that SB202 and HB1228 were being considered by our newly elected 90th General Assembly. Shocked and surprised was an understatement when I read the content of these bills. Trust me, I would have liked nothing more than to post pictures of my art and my cats on my facebook page as I go through life, but this? Well, these discriminatory bills changed everything. They were beyond some religious protection (that is ALREADY covered in the US Constitution), they were a direct threat against me and my family, and I took it personally. Being raised in south Arkansas, there's one thing I was brought up to do. Stand up against bullies, and these particular ones had just poked a hornets nest.
I had seen an old 'Whites and Coloreds Only' door that was in my hometown only 20 years ago. Now, it wasn't being used any more, but it was still there. A blatant reminder of a hateful, shameful past when good, honest, tax paying Americans were intentionally separated and given second class status. That door brought back a flood of memories from the early 1960's when as a young child, I recalled the fear of change that ran through our town. My grandmother and I had gone downtown to Welch's Store in downtown Arkadelphia where she went to buy groceries. As we walked in, the familiar sound of the worn screen door slammed behind us and I distinctly remember the sound of her footsteps as she walked across the creaky old wooden floor to hand her grocery list to Mr. Welch behind the counter. Normally, he would yelp out a happy greeting, help her gather up all her items, check her out, hand me a piece of stick candy, load the groceries into the car, and we would then head back home. This day though was different. Very different.
His face was ashen, a scared, cold gray color. He was unusually quiet. Instead of his normal friendly greeting, he said in a low, firm voice. "Mrs. Hardman, now you take that grandbaby and head on back home now, you hear?" "I'll get your groceries together and bring 'em to you, but it's not safe here." She stopped dead in her tracks and with a voice of concern, said "Noble, what do you mean?" He looked past us out the front door and pointed. As we turned and looked, we saw the while helmets a block away. The Police and National Guard had been called out to the Courthouse lawn to control the crowd as tensions ran high. Desegregation was not that old, and change was not coming easy to my little hometown. I will never forget that image as long as I live, and I stared at the mass of people until they were just a faint image as our car turned the corner to head back home.
When we arrived back at the house, my grandmother and her close friend Q.V., Mrs. Annie Abrams mother, sat down at the kitchen table over a hot cup of coffee and in low voices, talked in worried tones about the direction our country was headed with such hate and resistance over nothing more than black and white children being educated together. The thing that bothered them the most was that the racist anger and resistance was being fueled by religion. Their loving and compassionate religion they both held dear to their hearts. This is what they had such a hard time grasping. That their religion was still being used as a weapon again another human being just because of the color of their skin. Biblical quotes and verses were being tossed around through the community like stones, about Cain and Abel, and how God 'marked' Cain for his sin, and how they just knew that God made him black in punishment for all to see and scorn.
These comments scared me as a young child. It was a fearful time for many, but as I mustered my courage up to ask my grandmother if those words were true and to tell her I was afraid, she replied in a voice I will never forget. She said "Honey, these people are ignorant. They are afraid of people and things that are different to them and are using the bible to back their hate" "God loves ALL of his children, regardless of the color of their skin or who they are, and it's not our place to judge anyone, now you remember that you hear?" I shook my head and found comfort in her words. I was brought up to not see color, and this made much more sense to me than the poison words of hate that had been spewed out like venom in the veins of our community. She then followed up with this - "Honey, you will always find what you look for, if you look for the good in people, that's what you will find. If you look for the bad in people, then that's will you will find. Always look for the good, because it will make you a happier person in life."
Regardless of what happened in Little Rock in 1957, it took much longer for things to be implemented and settle down in the smaller Southern towns. A few years later, I remember the very first black child in my first grade class. I liked her immediately and thought nothing of inviting her to my birthday party after school was out that summer. What I didn't know was that over half of the children I invited, didn't come to my party because of this. Their parents didn't want their kids going to a birthday party with a black child. My parents made the best of it and we had a good time anyway. I didn't even notice the smaller number of children, and I still to this day wave to and greet my friend when I see her in Arkadelphia on my trips back home. She was a very brave little girl, and grew up to be a very beautiful person who I respect a great deal.
Now, back to the Washington trip. After once again, feeling the sting of ignorance and hate that now targeted ME, my family, and my friends, I knew what I had to do. Stand up for what I know is right. I created a conceptual art Installation of a series of doors based on the shameful doors of our past, but with a modern day touch to them. We put them (and I say 'we,' my brothers and sisters of like minds who believe in tolerance, acceptance and equality for ALL) on the steps of the Arkansas State Capitol reminding others of where we've been, and where we as a nation cannot go again. As we fought the unjust actions of a select few that affected the lives of so many Arkansans, our message of Equality was heard via social media and the Associate Press, around the world. I then contacted the National Park Service in Washington D.C. who was very receptive after seeing the Installation, and after completing the permit applications, partnered with my dear friend Paula Morell with Tales from the South, and took the series to our Nation's Capitol to speak against discrimination.
Washington was incredible. The "I Have a Dream" speech was delivered by American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. on August 28, 1963, in which he calls for an end to racism in the United States. It was delivered to over 250,000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington. The speech was a defining moment of the American Civil Rights Movement. With Civil Rights laws now slowly being chipped away or even denied for some, this was a sacred place where dreams and freedom were born and it was the perfect place to once again, stand for justice and Equality for all. The "End Hate" Installation was placed at the base of the Lincoln Memorial, as Tales from the South set up a small table to collect individual stories of discrimination. It was Earth Day, and the 'Honor Flight', a WWII and Korean War Veterans program was present. It was in our Nation's Capitol we debuted the last door of the series, a "Veterans Only" door after hearing of the challenges and discrimination our Vets suffer and endure after returning home. They pay the ultimate price for our freedom and deserve to be treated better. We were told by the National Park Service that once again, over 250,000 people were in attendance that day and I assure you, they all saw the doors. We talked to as many as we could, and met people from all over the world. I spoke to a woman from China, who voiced her confusion when I told her about the RFRA laws that have been twisted from their original intent to now harm others. She said "But I thought EVERYONE was free and equal in America, that's what they tell us in China" I shook my head and told her no, that's not true, but assured her that we were working on it.
We talked to people from Jordan, who told us that while we have doors that have separated people, but they now have walls there between Israel and Palestine that separate families who can no longer see their loved ones or get to their homes. They then spoke in great lengths about how precious religion is, but how dangerous it can be if used incorrectly by those with a hateful agenda. I was introduced to an ex-Klu Klux Klan member who renounced his affiliation and fled from South Georgia to protect his transgender son. We spoke to Muslims, Christians, Jews, Atheists, Blacks, Whites, Asians, Hispanics, Republican's, Democrats, Independents, Libertarians, and the list goes on. We were thanked over and over again for bringing the powerful message of Equality to our nation's capitol in such a simple, recognizable art form. EVERYONE was respectful, open to conversation, and parted shaking hands. That is the one thing that I noticed that was different from here in the south, here, people are more obstinate of things they don't like or understand, and refuse to engage in conversation that makes them uncomfortable or could alter their views. There, these people were there for a reason. They were there in our Nation's Capitol at these monuments to observe and celebrate FREEDOM. They were open to conversation, even it if was something they weren't sure of or something they weren't familiar with. The WWII and Korean War Vets were the best though, they stood by those doors with honor and pride against tyranny of any kind. The one that stood out the most to me was the WWII Vet and his grown daughter standing beside the LGBT door for a photo. He said he was doing it for his granddaughter who was LGBT and told me he fought for her freedom as well. Very powerful words coming from a member of the Greatest Generation. I made sure that I thanked and shook the hand of every single one of them for their sacrifice, and their service in the name of Freedom.
As I stood inside the Lincoln Memorial I watched a video of the history of protests that have been held there and I was totally moved to emotion. I realized that we as American's are a proud people, who hold our beliefs strongly in our hearts. It's the one thing that makes our country so great. Do we always agree? No, and we never will, but if we speak our truth to each other, it then engages us in conversation, and that's where change and understanding has a chance to begin if our intentions are valid and not hollow, false, or hidden. I had tears running down my cheeks while watching that video and was never more proud to be an American in my life. I realized as a country, we do move forward even though the march towards freedom seems slow at times.
There are many, many, more stories of that day, but I specifically wanted to mention one more person. A young black man walked up to me after we set the display up and stayed with us all day in that hot blazing sun. His name was Melvin. His grandfather had been a community organizer and was there the day Martin Luther King gave his "I have a dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial. He talked to us all day about the world as a young black man, how he had never been in trouble, got home at a decent hour every night per his mother's request, and how he was still targeted and harassed due to the color of his skin. He told us he wanted to follow in his grandfather's footsteps and help people come together as one. He then offered to be my escort and guide when I walked over to visit the Martin Luther King Memorial. I am honored and blessed to have met him, and we exchanged numbers before I left. My journey with my new friend is only beginning and I expect to see great things from him in the near future. Why? Because he held one thing deeply in his heart. Hope.
The "End Hate" team has been invited back to D.C. in the next several weeks, and has now been presented with other opportunities to display the Installation around the country to continue the message of Equality. I am LGBT and was, and still am, directly affected by injustice, but my message is not just focused on my issues or any type of agenda. My message is a Human Rights message. Equality belongs to ALL, not just a select few. Change is hard, and we still have a lot of work to do, but as I keep the lessons of the past in my heart with the belief and passion for a better future for everyone, going forward is not difficult. A lot of good has come of these dark, challenging times. New friendships are being made, we are HIGHLY organized and the voices of Equality and Justice ARE being heard, and a new and better day is on the horizon. My religion? My religion is stronger than ever, for I know that love is the greatest gift of all. Loving my neighbor, regardless of their skin color, what their beliefs are, what political party they belong to, or who they as free consenting adults choose to love, is the real meaning of freedom. For it's the vile, poison of hate and discrimination that's the real enemy, and it's an enemy we as Arkansan's and American's will continue to fight, until we prevail.
In the great words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in."
I accept that challenge.
*A huge personal thanks to the "End Hate" team. Paula Morell with Tales from the South, her two children Annaliese and Sophia, Sherrie Shepherd, Michael Church and now Melvin. This journey would not have been possible without you and I thank and respect you all for your passion and efforts to make the world a better place for us, our children and for generations to come.