Black Lives Matter murals have been popping up all across the country–from Washington, D.C. to Tulsa, Oklahoma–following the protests sparked by George Floyd’s death.
More than 300 volunteers worked side-by-side last Friday and Saturday to make sure MLK Boulevard became the home of Chattanooga’s own “Black Lives Matter” mural. And on Monday evening, protesters gathered in the rain at Miller Park and marched to the new mural in front of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center to “christen” it.
“Power to the people, this is an amazing historical and iconic moment in time,” said local activist and mural organizer Cameron (C-Grimey) Williams. “Don’t take this lightly. Remember this day, because a piece of public art dedicated in the spirit of protecting black and brown bodies is beautiful and something that we don’t often see in this city.”
The words on Chattanooga’s work of street art span the entire width of the drivable part of the 200 block of East MLK Boulevard. To add emphasis, Chattanooga added an exclamation point after the word “matters” to its mural, which was designed by locally-based artist SEVEN.
“Personally, as an artist, I just kind of wanted to do something,” SEVEN said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I had been feeling like I wanted to somehow contribute to the movement.”
The street art comes amid ongoing civil unrest in Chattanooga and across the country in response to the Memorial Day death of 46-year-old George Floyd, a black man whose neck was pinned to the ground under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for nearly nine minutes.
Floyd’s death sparked massive worldwide protests and has forced a reexamination of racism and police conduct. It also intensified outrage over killings past, largely because 2020 has already seen a number of black men and women killed by police officers or vigilantes: most recently, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.
According to Shane Morrow of Rise Chattanooga, the grassroots organization that helped fund Chattanooga’s mural, activists chose the iconic location because of the rich history that MLK Boulevard holds.
“This is something we can tell our children and our grandchildren about,” he said. “Please make sure to note that we are a part of history.”
Once known as the “Big 9,” MLK Boulevard (formerly East Ninth Street) has a storied history as the home of much of Chattanooga’s African-American culture. When separate but equal was the prevailing law of the South, black-owned retail shops, movie theaters, offices and nightclubs lined the bustling East Ninth Street.
City Councilman Anthony Byrd, whose District 8 encompasses Martin Luther King Boulevard, said he was “happy to be a part” of the historical moment.
“It just shows the community that when we come together, it’s some amazing things that we can do, and it’s just one step to uplifting our community in a better way,” he said.
Calling the event an “unrepeatable miracle,” District 9 City Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod said she “met some awesome new folk while painting Black Lives Matter on MLK.”
Although the city of Chattanooga backed the project, they did not fund it. Undeterred by this fact, a handful of detractors took to social media to complain that “Black Lives Matter” shouldn’t be written on “their” public streets, that the message is spreading hate and racism, that the mural is offensive, and should be removed, dug up or repaved.
A few random comments posted on Facebook include: “now when can we paint a blue line,” “activists is another name for jobless troublemakers,” “BLM are the racist” and “the mayor needs to be fired behind this.”
Despite the push back, activist and District 8 City Council candidate Marie R. Mott said the Black Lives Matter mural is another step towards much-needed permanent change in Chattanooga.
“Black Lives Matter is not just a hashtag, it’s become a way of life,” she explained. “This is us stamping Ninth Street a new permanent future in Chattanooga.”