Whitewashing American History The WPA Mural Controversy In San Francisco

Above Photo: Part of a panel of the mural “Life of Washington” (1936) by radical artist Victor Arnautoff depicts George Washington as military commander overseeing genocide of American Indians. Identity politics liberals claim the murals are “violent images that are offensive to certain communities,” and San Francisco Board of Education has outrageously voted to obliterate them. (Click on image to see full mural.) (Photo: Yalonda M. James / San Francisco Chronicle)

There has a been a controversy percolating the last couple of years over protests against the 13-panel “Life of Washington” murals painted in 1936 by Works Progress Administration (WPA) artist Victor Arnautoff that are on display at George Washington High School in San Francisco. These murals dared to challenge the patriotic stereotype of Washington, instead portraying him as a slaveholder and military commander overseeing the genocide of American Indians. This radical artist was in many ways far ahead of his time, seeking to portray the brutal reality of U.S. history not the myth ensconced in school textbooks and the national anthem by the ruling class.

Yet now the San Francisco Board of Education has voted to obliterate this militantly anti-racist artist’s depiction of history that the racist rulers always sought to deny. The argument justifying this censorship is that the images were “disturbing” to students. The threat to freedom of expression and free speech is real, and its real targets are the left, labor and those who understand that historical truth is a weapon for the oppressed and exploited.  Here it’s being undermined not only by white supremacists and Trump but by “identity politics” Democrats and “progressives.”

A petition signed by more than 400 academics and educators from across the country and around the world calls for saving the Arnautoff murals. Historian/activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, warned, “The liberal campaign to destroy the Arnautoff timeline parallels the age of Trump that has found liberal Democrats invoking founding fathers, the Constitution, American values, as patriotic “Hamilton: The Musical” has been introduced at a lightening rate into public school curricula. I think it possible that there is actually a deep well of U.S. patriotism that lurks behind the anti-mural campaign.”

Defending the Arnautoff Murals

Part of another panel of “Life of Washington” mural (1936) by Victor Arnautoff depicts black slaves and white indentured servants on “founding father” George Washington’s plantation.  (Click on image to see full mural.) (Photo: Yalonda M. James / San Francisco Chronicle)

Every year in San Francisco during the entire month of July, Labor Fest (www.laborfest.net) celebrates workers history and culture. At International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 34 on July 9, Labor Fest held a panel discussion on the controversy over the Arnautoff murals including S.F. State University history professor emeritus Robert Cherney, Washington High School Alumni Association Vice President Lope Yap, Jr., and African American art professor and muralist Dewey Crumpler who painted the “response” murals in 1968-1974. All of the panelists were opposed the destruction of the Arnautoff murals. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZEMpyvdAXQ for the powerful commentary by Crumpler, who states that obliteration of the Arnautoff murals would render his own “irrelevant.”)

Describing in detail how Arnautoff’s murals “critique the mythology of George Washington, in a moving KGO radio interview (http://www.kgoradio.com/2019/06/24/the-pat-thurston-show-june-24-2019/) in June Crumpler recounts how as a six-year-old boy living in the then-segregated Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco, he was horrified seeing the image in Jet magazine of the grotesquely disfigured corpse of 14-year-old African American Emmett Till lynched in Mississippi for “offending” a white woman. That image was “indelibly imprinted in my head” Crumpler declares. “That trauma worked its way through me and made me into an artist.”  “I showed that image to my children because like my mother, I wanted them to confront this horror….”  Disturbing? Yes. But the image of Emmett Till’s body is “why black people all over America got in the streets and made it better for every person in this country.”

When Professor Cherney, who wrote a biography of Victor Arnautoff, began speaking at the panel discussion at Local 34, a handful of people who favor destroying the murals harangued and disrupted the meeting for 20 minutes. The standing room only audience of mostly older leftists, veterans of labor, anti-war, anti-apartheid and civil rights struggles responded with “Shame, shame, shame!” The mainly white disrupters continued grotesquely smearing those opposed to destruction of anti-racist art with shouts of “white supremacists!”

San Francisco’s Board of Mis-Education Teaches 
Identity Politics, Political Correctness and “Safe” Spaces

Part of mural “Life of Washington” (1936) by radical artist Victor Arnautoff depicts George Washington as military commander overseeing genocide of Native Americans. Identity politics liberals claim the murals are “violent images that are offensive to certain communities,” and San Francisco Board of Education has outrageously voted to obliterate them. (Click on image to see full mural.) (Photo: Yalonda M. James / San Francisco Chronicle)

At the start of the June 25 San Francisco Board of Education meeting, President Stevon Cook purloined and misused a quote from literary giant and activist Alice Walker. Had he known that Walker, a defender of freedom of expression, had written a letter to the Oakland School Board in 2014 objecting to their capitulation to the Oakland police demanding the censorship of a new curriculum on the writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal and the racist death penalty, perhaps he would not have cited her. Cook’s criticism of the Arnautoff murals as “violent images that are offensive to certain communities” sounds perversely like the OPD slanders of Mumia.

First to speak during the discussion were those who supported maintaining these historic murals, including Choctaw Indian elder Tamaka Bailey, Lope Yap, Jr., vice president of the GW High School Alumni Association, artists, a librarian and a number of trade unionists. The Board turned a deaf ear to those defending Arnautoff’s radical murals and voted unanimously to paint them over in line with the argument that students need to be sheltered from images such as that of a dead Native American at Washington’s feet. The Board is reviving the work of right-wing predecessors who did not want students to learn about the historical truths that Arnautoff and other leftist artists sought to expose.

A committee, the Reflection and Action Working Group, has been selected to determine how to destroy the mural. But the Alumni Association is collecting donations reportedly for a court suit to stop the removal and destruction of the murals.

Radical Murals Rooted in Class Struggle

This is not the first time radical murals have been under attack.  The same year as the 1934 San Francisco General Strike, capitalist titan Nelson Rockefeller was destroying a mural, “The Future of Mankind” painted by communist muralist Diego Rivera at New York’s Rockefeller Center. Why? Because it prominently featured Lenin and Trotsky, the leaders of the Russian Revolution, as well as Karl Marx. In Mexico, however, classrooms go to view and study the Diego Rivera murals which show the bloody suppression of the indigenous people.

Victor Arnautoff, a self-portrait. H.R. 9490 was the Internal Security Act of 1950, also known as the McCarran-Walters Act, which among other things established concentration camps for communists in the U.S.

Also in 1934, there were two other militant strikes that caused the pillars of the Pacific Stock Exchange and Wall Street capitalists to shake, the Minneapolis Teamsters strike and the Toledo Auto-lite strike. All three of these strikes had things in common: avowed communists were in the leadership of the strikes; the National Guard was called out to bolster police forces suppressing the strike; workers were killed by police and martyred in these strikes overwhelmingly supported by working people. Additionally, the Minneapolis Teamsters subsequently organized workers defense guards to stave off attacks by the fascist Silver Shirts (who copied Hitler’s Brown Shirts in Germany). Roosevelt had the Trotskyist-led Minneapolis Teamsters jailed during WWII.

During the anti-red McCarthy witchhunts, Victor Arnautoff, a professor at Stanford and avowed Communist, was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). His HUAC dossier was read into the Congressional Record by California Congressman Donald L. Jackson, representing Santa Monica and replacing future president Richard Nixon on the committee. Why was Arnautoff brought before the witch-hunters? Because he was defending his comrade, Anton Refregier, who was under attack for his Rincon Annex Post Office murals in San Francisco. These are seen as subversive because they depicted Chinese workers building the Trans-Continental Railroad and later under attack by racist, xenophobic mobs. These murals showed longshore workers fighting for a union hiring hall, and a commemoration of the two strikers killed by police in the ’34 maritime strike, precipitating the San Francisco General Strike.

The Refregier murals were targeted by HUAC, claiming they “tend to promote racial hatred and class warfare.” (See Gray Brechin, The Trial of the Rincon Annex Murals at http://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=Trial_of_the_Rincon_Annex_Murals. The longshore union organized black workers into the union, showing class solidarity 30 years before the Civil Rights Act (which long-time Dixiecrat Lyndon Johnson signed in 1964, while escalating U.S. imperialism’s war on Vietnam). “Racial hatred?” This was how red-hunters smeared radical artists’ depiction of militant struggles against racial oppression. Arnautoff’s mural in Richmond, California, painted in 1936, just two years after the tumultuous maritime strike, prominently shows an integrated longshore work force which made class struggle possible.

Panel from mural by Anton Refregier in the Rincon Annex in San Francisco portrays Chinese workers constructing the trans-continental railroad.  (Click on image to see full mural.) (Photo: John Horn)

Defending the Refregier murals that told the true history of those strikes were the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the ILWU, which denounced the “Hearst-inspired attempt to suppress the work of art” (ILWU’s The Dispatcher 2 April 1948). The Young Democrats of San Francisco charged the murals with being “little short of treason,” while the American Legion expressed concern that the murals would “expose thousands of school children” to “communistic propaganda” from which they needed to be protected.

What and Who Is Behind the “Paint It Down” Crowd?
School Privatizers and Guilty White Liberals

Vince Matthews, the privatizing superintendent of the San Francisco School District, is front and center in today’s anti-mural campaign. He was the principal of the notorious Edison Schools Inc.’s for-profit San Francisco charter school that was forced to close in 2001 because of opposition from the community and the school board. A school district investigation found evidence the public school run by the Edison privatizers had been purging its student body of black kids, poor kids, special-needs kids. And now he has the nerve to present himself as being “sensitive” to the needs of minority children.

From 2007 to 2009, Matthews was the third and last state administrator of the Oakland Unified School District under state takeover. A union buster, he took a hard line in bargaining with the teachers union (OEA, the Oakland Education Association), as he insisted on no pay raise for the lowest paid teachers in the county and demanded larger class sizes. When the state takeover ended, he stayed on as state trustee with power to veto contracts. He continued to insist on a hard line in bargaining, which led to the district imposing hard terms on the teachers in spring 2010. Throughout his tenure as state administrator and state trustee, he approved outsourcing to private consultants at a per capita rate double that of the average California school district. Matthews has caused chaos for students, teachers unions and the community in every California district he has administered.

Along with hard-core privatizer and union-basher Matthews, Stevon Cook, president of the SF Board of Education, opines that Arnautoff’s 13 mural panels contain “violent images that are offensive to certain communities.” Board vice president Mark Sanchez has used a program, “peer assisted review,” which was supposed to have been set up to help teachers; instead he has used it as a tool to target black, Latino, senior and dissident teachers. He justifies this saying it’s legal – meaning he can get away with it – echoing other notorious union busters from Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair to Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Now Sanchez is pushing for the school board to spend $600,000 to “paint it [the Arnautoff mural] down.” Meanwhile, the state is 41st on spending per student, but first in per prisoner spending.

Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) is a “progressive” group that has been organizing to rid the school of these “dangerous” murals. On their web page they pose for a photo of about 100 people (overwhelmingly white except for one black man) with signs reading “End White Silence.” Yet, they are helping to silence and eradicate the anti-racist voice of a red painter who was an artistic pioneer in speaking and showing the truth of how U.S. capitalism was rooted in slavery and genocide.

Ironically, this site of the photo which illustrates SURJ’s “Open Letter on the Life of Washington Murals” is Harry Bridges Plaza in front of the Ferry Building in San Francisco. It’s named for one of the longshore leaders of the 1934 “Big Strike” that gave rise to the ILWU, a momentous class struggle which was won through the unity of white and black workers. The longshore union, one of the first to integrate, has been a supporter of Arnautoff’s murals from the beginning. In 2017, the ILWU newspaper, The Dispatcher, (November 2017) ran an article highlighting the artistic contributions of Arnautoff before an exhibition of his work at SF State. (See  https://www.ilwu.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/DispatcherNOV2017lores.pdf   p.6.)  In fact, the artist’s two sons became members of the longshore union.

In SURJ’s “Open Letter,” they call for schools to be made “culturally safe” by not exposing students to images where “Indigenous people are portrayed as shirtless savages and Black people as meek slaves.”  This willful distorion smears Arnautoff’s work in the service of “safe space” guilty white liberalism, which is counterposed to militant struggle to uproot racial oppression. Actually, Arnautoff’s critical murals depict just the opposite, proud Native Americans in war dress defending themselves against colonists’ slaughter and the first president Washington’s slaves working his plantation.

Dewey Crumpler in front of African American history panel of his response murals, painted between 1968 and 1974, at George Washington High School in San Francisco. Dewey denounced plans to obliterate the Arnautoff murals, which would make his own work “irrelevant.”  (Click on image to enlarge.) 
(Photo: screenshot from video by George Washington High School Alumni Association of SF)

Black muralist Dewey Crumpler notes that the image of a murdered Native American “represents all those Native Americans who died at war” against genocidal “founding fathers” like Washington. Crumpler stated clearly, “ I cannot abide by the destruction of art… in order [to] …remove all those things that are traumatic in our lives,  so that “then when we argue for remedy… we have no history to prove the murderous process” (http://www.kgoradio.com/2019/06/24/the-pat-thurston-show-june-24-2019/).

Defending Art That Seeks to Tell the Truth About History

Arnautoff, who became a Stanford professor, had been an assistant in Mexico to the communist muralist Diego Rivera, who not only influenced his work – as vividly shown by the murals – but also his politics. Victor Arnautoff, who in his youth had fought on the wrong side in the Russian Civil War after the Bolshevik Revolution, under Rivera’s tutelage became a Communist. Like other performing artists Paul Robeson and Woody Guthrie, who were his comrades, he would doubtless be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with those defending his murals.

The ILWU had a close relationship with the work of WPA artists since the ’30s. While the union bureaucracy has worked overtime to tame it in the service of the bosses’ rules and Democratic Party, longshore workers’ militant tradition of fighting the capitalist bosses and racists continues to reverberate today. We’ve marched for immigrant workers rights and shut down ports against U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, demanding freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal and an end to racist killings by the police.

May 1948 protest against government censorhsip of Anton Refregier murals in the Rincon Annex post office in San Francisco.(Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

In 2016, a contingent of longshore workers from West Coast ports traveled to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota to stand strong with the Sioux people against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The following year the longshore union voted to mobilize to stop the fascist Patriotic Prayer group from rallying in San Francisco, a union stronghold. The fascists called off their rally. Liberal white guilt groups like SURJ certainly won’t stop the fascists and defend Native Americans and African Americans by seeking “culturally safe” schools (!) through censoring radical anti-racist art.

To stop the mural-destroying liberals, there needs to be an outpouring of opposition, particularly from students and teachers and transport unions, like the demonstrations in 1948 that saved the Refregier murals at San Francisco’s Rincon Annex Post Office. It should demand “Hands Off the WPA Murals!” and “Don’t Whitewash Our Militant History.”

Jack Heyman, a retired Bay Area longshore activist, was radicalized in the ‘60’s while working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Atlanta to integrate restaurants and to stop the Ku Klux Klan. When he got up to defend the Arnautoff murals at the June 25 SF school board meeting, speaking about the 1934 general strike, he was cut off after one minute by the would-be mural censors.