Larry Huff –
The mere mention of the civil rights movement evokes strong emotions in most every southerner, if not in every American—at least those born before 1990. What we know is that grave wrongs were committed, and forty years later, our nation’s struggle to achieve racial reconciliation is a burden to most every person who cares about its well-being. Our position on racism was made clear in this news analysis. In short, we hold fast to the truth that every human being is equal and that racism is one of humanity’s worst conditions. We’re also greatly saddened that it so stubbornly grips our country. The gravity of this issue is the precise reason we’re publishing the following story. We believe honesty is a fundamental starting point to address social injustice and to learn from history’s wrongs. And when history’s truth is compromised, there’s usually a story worth telling.
The Foot Solider of Birmingham
As history reminds us, racial unity takes time. Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), the man famous for the quote “God, grant me the serenity…” had some profound insights on the subject of racial discord. When writing about it, he said, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.” On this, most agree. Most also believe a critical part of that hope is a fierce commitment to the truth.
Perhaps that’s why Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park is such an important place. Much of what it reflects is a truthful chapter of Alabama’s history we must never forget. As author Malcolm Gladwell says,
It is now a shrine to the events of 1963. The first Black mayor of Birmingham, Richard Arringon…decides to fill this little patch of history with sculptures that tell the story of the [civil rights] movement. He commissions one of Martin Luther King, another of Fred Shuttlesworth…and one of the four little girls killed when white supremacists bombed 16th Baptist Church in September of 1963.
The park’s most well-known civil rights monument, however, is the one commonly called “Foot Soldiers.” Its immeasurable importance is why it is so disconcerting to learn that it was embellished to support its creator’s personal narrative, instead of tediously depicting the truth—for its truth is infinitely powerful without exaggeration.
The man who says the statue was embellished is the one who created it, Ronald “Mac” McDowell. Gladwell calls McDowell the “house artist for the civil rights movement” and what he recently revealed to Gladwell is unsettling—not because it’s unthinkable that people exaggerate to make a point, but because of all that was at stake with McDowell’s work. This story was revealed in Malcolm Gladwell’s riveting podcast, The Foot Soldier of Birmingham, Oh Mac What Did You Do.
As Gladwell says, “There’s a nice and tidy story you can tell about that statue, but the real story is much different.”
In short, McDowell was commissioned to create a sculpture to memorialize the famous picture taken by photographer Bill Hudson on May 3, 1963. Hudson’s photo shows a white police officer and his German Shepherd lunging at a black youth on that historic day. Much has been written about the wrongs of that day, including the decisions by Birmingham Police Chief Bull Connor and his riot-control tactics. As Gladwell said of the demonstration organized by Martin Luther King, “They were trying to provoke the Birmingham Chief of Police, a troglodyte named Bull Connor, into doing something so outrageous that it would turn the tide of public opinion in their favor, and that’s exactly what happened.”
The picture Bill Hudson took that day went viral in a print-only world. Gladwell tells its remarkable story:
The next day, the New York Times publishes the photograph above the fold, across three columns on the front page of its weekend paper, as does basically every other major newspaper in the country. President Kennedy is asked about the photo and he’s appalled. The Secretary of State says it will, “Embarrass our friends abroad and make our enemies joyful.” It’s discussed on the floor of Congress. Editorials are written. People have debates about it. It’s exactly what King wants, something to show the rest of the world just how bad things are in the South, and the tide turns.
Clearly, the photograph needed no help. An exact replica would have been a timeless reminder of an epically historic day. Unfortunately, the now-famous statue that supposedly reflects the photograph took a hard turn from the truth.
Its first departure from the turth, however, is that Walter Gadsden, the young man bitten by the dog, said (on Gladwell’s podcast) that he was never part of the civil rights movement. He was a 17-year-old kid cutting school who got caught up in the crowd. In fact, the reason he was bitten is that he stepped behind the police barricade trying to prevent being caught in-between the police line and the demonstrators. He just wanted to go home. After stepping behind the barricade, the 6′-4″ Gadsden was bitten in a split-second lunge by the police K-9, Leo. Leo’s attack surprised his handler, Officer Middleton, as much as it surprised Gadsden. As the photo shows and the podcast confirms, the leash was tight and Leo’s front paws were in the air because Officer Middleton was trying to pull Leo off of Gadsden.
While there’s far more to this story than there’s room to post, the best understanding of why McDowell took it upon himself to embellish history in his Foot Soldiers sculpture is found in his interview with Malcolm Gladwell. The transcript of their conversation follows:
Malcolm Gladwell: Tell me your emotional reactions to that photograph.
Ronald “Mac” McDowell: Well, I saw that the boy was maybe six-four. The officer is maybe five-ten, five nine, and I said, “This is a movement about power,” so I made the little boy younger and smaller, and the officer taller and stronger. The arm of the law is so strong. That’s why his arm is almost like “strength,” and the dog is more like a wolf than a real dog. Because if I’m a little boy, that’s what I would see. I would see this Superman hovering me, putting his big old giant monster of a dog in my groin area, in my private area, and so that’s what I envisioned when I first saw the photograph.
Gladwell: And you changed it. In the photograph, I noticed the boy is leaning in, and in your sculpture, he’s leaning back. Tell me about that.
McDowell: He’s leaning back because I wanted to depict him showing that I’m not going to fight you. I’m not leaving. I’m not moving. I’m standing, but I’m not going to fight you. This is a nonviolent protest. That’s why his hands are open, and he’s going back, like, “Do whatever you’re going to do. Put the dog on me. Beat me with the club, whatever you want to do.” And I saw all of that when I saw the photograph.
Gladwell: Those glasses are like…were the glasses the same…did you make the glasses bigger, too?
McDowell: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
McDowell: They’re bigger. So he’s almost like a blind officer. He doesn’t even see the kid because he’s so far beyond that. “Kill this n—-. Attack this n—-.” He saw past the reality of this is a human child, a human being. That’s why he was wearing blind-people glasses.
Gladwell: That is so interesting, because when you see the … That’s the thing I couldn’t put my finger on. The officer is behaving as if he’s blind.
McDowell: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Gladwell: The dog is attacking. He doesn’t even see the boy.
McDowell: Mm-hmm (affirmative). You’re the first person I told that to.
Gladwell: That’s so interesting.
McDowell: See how vicious the dog looks?
Gladwell: Oh, my. That is a wolf.
McDowell: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I didn’t know what instruments to use. I did all this with a pencil. Penciled in the hairs, and I drew the teeth like that.
Gladwell: Oh, look at the teeth!
McDowell: I did that on purpose.
Gladwell: They’re curved.
McDowell: Yeah. Because if you have a curved tooth, like when you see those werewolf pictures, the teeth are curved, because they’re like a snake when they bite you. If he doesn’t retract, he’s going to rip. It’s not going in and coming out. When he comes out, he’s going to rip flesh.
Gladwell: When you’re face to face with the statue, it has historical authority. It’s in the shadow of 16th Street Baptist Church in Kelly Ingram Park, at the actual site of the Birmingham marches. But it’s a work of imagination. It’s not a literal representation. It’s art. Were there other details? You were saying there’s the blind officer. There are the curved teeth on the dog.
McDowell: The officer moved all of his anger into the dog, and it’s the dog that’s attacking the boy. That’s what you do with racism.
Gladwell: Mac made Leo into a wolf, and blinded Middleton, and shrank Walter Gadsden till he was tiny and helpless because he was telling a story about Birmingham. That’s what history is. Each side writes their own story, and the winner story is the one we call the truth. You don’t think White people told their share of whoppers over the years in the south? You don’t think that there’s a statue in a southern town somewhere of a champion of the Confederacy that makes a hero of someone who was actually a villain? White people got to do that in the south for centuries. Foot Soldier is just what happens when the people on the bottom finally get the power to tell the story their way. It was a long time coming. It’s a brilliant statue.
Ronald McDowell: Thank you. I put my heart into it.
Perhaps even more disconcerting than McDowell’s exaggerations are Gladwell’s justifications. Of course, white people have done the same—exaggerated the truth to revise history. What’s troubling is that Gladwell says “That’s what history is. Each side writes their own story, and the winner story is the one we call the truth.” No! That’s not what history is. It is not each side writing their own story. That’s the point of this article. By definition, history is factual. History is true. And history matters greatly, because until we all have the courage to embrace its truth, however displeasing it may be to every race, religion, movement, and country, we will likely never avoid repeating its chapters that we loathe the most.
Larry Huff is the Yellowhammer’s Executive Editor, and you can follow him on Twitter @LHYellowhammer