An APR news feature
The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has prompted protests throughout Alabama. Marchers carrying signs have made their voices heard in Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Huntsville, Montgomery, and Fairhope. In Mobile recently, children and other residents used a different medium to spread the message. They used chalk.
Crowds of people of all ages and races gathered to spread a message of brotherhood. Their canvas was a 300-year old street where slaves once walked. This section of Conti Street in downtown Mobile was closed while a mural a block long proclaiming “Black Lives Matter."
“I’m sorry, I’m out of breath. I’ve just been drawing my little heart out,” said local artist April Terra Livingston.
She drew flowers on the letter “R” for children to color. When she heard about the project just the week before, she knew she had to be a part of it.
“ I couldn’t help myself,” she said. “It just seemed like something that needed to be done. It’s wonderful to see the community all coming out here to work on this, to make a statement and show everybody how we care about each other and how we all believe everybody has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Sonika Edwards Bush was one of the organizers of the event. She looked down the block at the crowd working together on the mural.
“It’s something special. I haven’t really wrapped my head around it,” Bush said. “I have to get out of my head sometimes, but it’s just special to have all different shades of people come together just for one cause and I look at today as a heart day. It’s just a day to change your heart. It’s a day to love and talk to somebody that you may not know and find out what common theme that you have with that person.”
Bush had been looking for a way to deal with the impact of recent events, including the death of George Floyd. The project seemed like divine intervention.
“The week before they called me I was just hit dead on in the face with the reality of what’s going on, how to fix your household from the inside and my daughter was just like, she’s just over it, the whole world issues and I was talking to a friend of mine and I was, like, I want to paint a street with kids,” she said. “I want to paint a street downtown and a week later, God gave me this.”
Kids lined the street, coloring letters. Bush said giving children a chance to get out in the open and express their artistic talents was another benefit of the project.
“The kids are out here,” Bush said. “The kids are smiling. The kids are just happy to be a part of something. School was taken from them. Art is a part of their release. Their creativity so I’m happy the kids are here to join and share this.”
“Kids love coloring. What’s better than having a bunch of people out here with some chalk and crayons getting it done,” said Dre Paige, another organizer.
He said getting young people involved is more than just letting kids color.
“I have three black sons and they’re all here and I hope that they grow up in a world that’s more inclusive, that’s more together than the one we grew up in,” Paige said. “We’re passing the baton and they’re picking it up and just making things better."
The crowd, however, wasn’t just kids.
“It’s awesome,” Paige said. “Look at this, it’s beautiful. It’s a rainbow of people here. I have a young lady here who’s pushing 80 years old who decided to come out and show support and say that while all lives do matter I’m going to help you right now spotlight the black lives that are in danger. I mean, it’s just awesome. Look at it.”
The project was sponsored by the Alabama Contemporary Arts Center.
“The turnout’s great. I’m not surprised. Mobile is here for this,” said Elizabeth Elliott, arts center executive director.
“For us, it’s just a really great opportunity to facilitate something that’s really meaningful to Mobile and meaningful on a global level and to be out here and saying Black Lives Matter and have everybody rally around that idea,” she said. “We have to make that idea normal. We really have to celebrate it so that we can get the real change that’s needed. The change to the complex system and not just one system, but all of the systems that don’t value communities of color and don’t have equal access to resources.”
The mural is in chalk. It won’t last long in one of the wettest cities in America. Elliott said that’s the point.
"Like the issue, you can’t just do it, walk away and expect to have a long-term effect. You have to keep coming back working at it and coming back “One day isn’t enough. We need to be at this every weekend. We need at this as often and as much as we possibly can. And this is a temporary moment, but it’s also a long-term engagement and, for us, we had a commitment and the entire committee that worked on this has a commitment to doing it over and over again,” she said.
Bush said that while chalk can wash away, the mural can still have a long-term effect on the people who created it and their city.
“It’s in chalk, but to me, it’s much more deeper than ‘oh, it’s just in chalk.’ The chalk is seeping into the pavement. The chalk is blowing in the wind. The chalk is on the fingertips of people I haven’t met before they came out here today to help paint this mural, so some people may say it’s chalk, it’s just chalk,” she said. “No, it’s chalk, but it’s just so much more than just chalk."
The mural on Conti Street now joins similar Black Lives Matter messages on streets including Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Charlotte, and Los Angeles.