The two poster campaigns in “Defeat the Ghosts” re-connect Alabama’s civil rights history to present day immigration issues. Several hundred of these were posted and distributed around Birmingham just before the 2012 election. As if ghosts themselves they appeared in the middle of the night, seemingly stepping out of the past while addressing the present.
The project is very specific to Alabama; its history and present day politics. Here’s some background:
“Let our racist past go, so Alabama can grow”
Alabama has a deep and vital history in the Civil Rights movement — events to be proud of, as well as events to be ashamed of. While the struggle for civil rights is ongoing, in many ways, the idea of civil rights has culturally receded. Seen through the lens of mainstream culture, the fight for civil rights in the 1960’s is often portrayed as though it was simply history, and is not currently relevant. This is not the case.
Contemporary Civil Rights
In Alabama, as elsewhere, civil rights is a contemporary issue. In 2011, Alabama adopted HB 56, one of nation’s strictest anti-illegal immigration laws — tougher than Arizona’s notorious SB 1070. This is no coincidence. The same author, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, authored both laws.
HB 56 has had unintended consequences for immigrants and visitors of all kinds. Legal residents and legal workers have left the state. Across Alabama, there were reports of increased general hostility toward Latinos, but they were not the only ones caught up in the atmosphere of intimidation. A German Mercedes-Benz executive was arrested for not having adequate documentation of his citizenship. In a separate incident, a Japanese Honda executive was ticketed at a checkpoint for not having a state ID. The consequences of HB 56 have drawn national attention. For example, the nationally syndicated radio show, This American Life, highlighted HB 56, and it was the subject of articles in newspapers throughout the country.
During my residency at Space One Eleven I visited Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham. While looking across the park, my hosts told me, “this is where the Children’s Marches happened.” I looked over at the 16th St Baptist Church, and realized I was standing where Bull Connor used fire hoses and police dogs on the children during the SCLC’s Birmingham Campaign. I had learned the history, but it was an entirely different thing to stand on the same ground.
There are many events that are significant to Alabama’s civil rights struggles — the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the bombing of the 16th St Baptist Church, and Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, just to name a few. Yet, I was surprised to find Alabama voters do not seem to connect the dots to today’s struggle over immigrants’ rights. In our collective effort to put the shameful parts of our past behind us, we are also losing some of the lessons.
Bull Connor as a villain
From his membership in the Klan in the 1920’s, to his infamous role in the Birmingham Campaign, Bull Connor was consistently on the wrong side of history. One could rightly say he was on the wrong side of humanity. Connor never apologized for his appalling actions before his death in 1973. He went his grave as a villain.
True villains are rare — it’s hard to find a person who is clearly a “bad guy” without remorse or regret or some way to elicit a degree of sympathy. As a result, no one wants to be associated with the legacy of Eugene “Bull” Connor. Villains have weight in our culture and that weight can be leveraged.
Unfortunately, Alabama lawmakers positions are more in common with Bull Connor’s than anyone would comfortably admit.
Defeat the Ghosts
The project consists of two letterpress poster campaigns. Both seem to have appeared from the 1960s, but upon closer examination, addresses issues relevant to today.
“Re-elect Bull Connor’s Ghost” communicates the idea that if Bull Connor were alive today, he would be on the side of politicians like Scott Beason, Micky Hammon, and Mo Brooks. These men have pushed retrograde laws like HB 56, and cling to a clichéd mythic American past that never existed. The project also highlights the legacy of anti-integration politics and it’s connection to today’s anti-immigration policies.
“Defeat the Ghosts” is the more hopeful of the pair, addressing the legacy of racism that continues to haunt Alabama. The design is more modern, in contrast to the Connor poster. The main message is that we must “defeat the ghosts” and overcome fear and illusions. It also illustrates the concept that the dead ideas of the past continue to prevent the Alabama, and society as a whole, from moving forward.
The prints were put up simultaneously around Birmingham, Alabama, just prior to the Fall 2012 election.
Created with the support of:
- Space One Eleven in Birmingham, Alabama
- Visual Artists Network Residency