New Houston mural features prominent civil rights figures
A new mural depicting eight civil rights heroes was unveiled near Texas Southern University Monday morning.
The mural was unveiled the day before Election Day with a purpose. Each of those honored played a part in fighting for equality, including the right to vote, for all people. The organizers of the unveiling started and ended with the message that they hoped this mural would inspire and remind people to exercise their right to vote.
“This is a nonpartisan event,” said Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis. “We don’t care if you’re voting for an Independent, a Republican or a Democrat, but people on that wall fought so that we would all have the right to vote, and we would really not do justice to them or ourselves if we did not all exercise our right to vote.”
Painted by Reginald Adams, the Sacred Struggles/Vibrant Justice mural features the faces of leaders in Houston civil rights history.
The art piece, spearheaded by Ellis, includes the faces of Rev. John D. Moore, Christia Adair, Heman Sweatt, Hattie Mae White, Rev. William Lawson, Barbara Jordan, George “Mickey” Leland and Ada Edwards.
“The mural is a part of a larger public arts project,” Ellis said. “If you go through the campus of Texas Southern University, if you’re walking along this trail or if you are riding along the trail you will notice once you pass the University the quality of the visuals goes down a bit.”
Ellis said he hopes this mural inspires homes, churches and businesses in the area to take an interest in art, whether it be with a social justice theme or not.
Each of the leaders depicted in the mural fought for African American suffrage, desegregation and respect for individuals of all races. Four of those honored in the mural held elected offices, and two served as religious leaders. Two even had a hand in critical Supreme Court decisions.
“These are all transformational figures for not only Third Ward and Houston but, in many cases, around the nation,” said Melanie Lawson, anchor for Channel 13 News and daughter of Rev. William Lawson, one of those honored in the mural.
People behind the painting
During his time as a pastor, John D. Moore advocated for equal rights for African Americans along with equal pay for black teachers and postal workers.
Christia Adair participated in the historic 1944 Smith v. Allwright Supreme Court case, which overturned Texas’ law that allowed the Democratic Party to prohibit minorities to vote in primary elections. Adair also served as the executive secretary of the Houston NAACP from 1949 to 1959, according to a program handed out at the ceremony.
“She fought for the right for women to vote when there were few people willing to step forward,” said Congressman Al Green. “She was for suffrage for women, and she was also not a person to stand on the sidelines.”
After Heman Sweatt was rejected from the University of Texas School of Law because of segregation, he challenged the “separate but equal” doctrine. His case went to the Supreme Court, where he won. The 1950 Sweatt v. Painter case paved the way for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated all schools in the United States.
“Sweatt’s friends at UT would walk him to his car because they feared for his safety,” said HISD District II President Rhonda Skillern-Jones.
Hattie Mae White was the first black woman elected to any public office in Texas following the Reconstruction era. She won a seat on the HISD board in 1958 despite being the target of cross burnings and other attacks.
“It’s been said that Hattie Mae White ran for election because she heard another parent say at the time, ‘there’s not a time right now or a space for a black school board member,'” Jones said. “She proved them wrong. She ran and she won.”
Rev. William Lawson led Houston’s civil rights movement peacefully, avoiding confrontation by negotiating with business leaders, community members and politicians. He founded Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church and worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Lawson is still alive today.
“When Dr. King tried to come to this city, there were many churches in this city that would not open their doors to Dr. Martin Luther King,” Green said. “There was one man who took a stand, one man who decided what Dr. King had to say was worth being heard and that it ‘ought to come from a pulpit in Houston, Texas, and that was the honorable William Alexander Lawson.”
Congresswoman Barbara Jordan was the first black woman elected to the Texas Senate and the first southern African American woman elected to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. Jordan spoke during the opening speech for President Richard Nixon’s impeachment hearings.
“The honorable Barbara Jordan took me in and endorsed me my first race,” said Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. “I will never forget it, and I am forever indebted to her for who she is.”
George “Mickey” Leland was one of the first black state representatives after Reconstruction. Later elected to the House of Representatives, he served until a plane crash in Ethiopia ended his life. Leland worked to end poverty not only in his district but around the world.
“Mickey Leland understood voting empowerment, among other things,” Lee said. “I call him the great humanitarian.”
Ada Edwards is a civil rights activist and founded the Ida Lee Delaney/Byron Gillum Justice Committee with the purpose of holding police accountable for killings of minorities. While on the Houston City Council she led the HIV/AIDS Task Force. Edwards is still alive today.
Many of those honored by this mural are not nationally recognized for their achievements. The creator and organizers of the project want onlookers to know that although the individuals pictured in the mural may not be widely remembered, they will remain in the memories of those who view the art piece.