The fourth installment of Revisionist History- “The Foot Soldier of Birmingham” is a controversial one. It contains revelations that might not sit well.
Let’s start with the photo at the top of this article. You might not be seeing what you think you see.
In 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King organized a number of sit-ins, boycotts and marches in the city of Birmingham, Alabama in order to bring attention to unrelenting racism being perpetrated in the south and throughout America.
It was during a peaceful march that the iconic picture was taken of a black teen coming face to face with a police officer and his dog. The picture was everywhere in the days that followed, even reaching President Kennedy’s desk. What people saw was a snapshot of injustice and brutality; a boy peacefully and passively marching for his rights when an officer viciously and hatefully lets his dog maul him.
The picture became more than a picture; it was a symbol and a catalyst for the civil rights movement. A year later, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.
Gladwell talks about this event in depth in his book ”David and Goliath”. He reveals that the boy in the picture named Walter Gadsden was not a Foot Soldier (a volunteer protester) for Dr. King but a bystander and that the officer, Dick Middleton was not trying to harm Gadsden, he was trying to save him.
(If you want, you can skip to just before the 17th minute of the podcast to hear it Gladwell’s words. There is also an article depicting the incident similar to way Gladwell does )
Here is where it gets more awkward. An artist was commissioned to commemorate the scene from the picture.
Here is a side by side comparison:
The discrepancies are many and do listen for the explanations for why they are there. This much is clear: The statue by Ronald S. Mcdowell is not meant as a monument like the statue of the flag raising at Iwo Jima. This is art. It is interactive, not just commemorative.
Is the symbolism of the statue incorrect? No, not at all, but it seems wrong because both Midelton and Gadsden are forever linked to it and therefore misrepresented. When I think about it now, Mcdowell’s statue is not unlike movies based on real events, how they will be riddled with inaccuracies in favor of pace and dramatic effect. Some people might reference Hamilton as an example where inaccuracies are present to teach a greater point.
Speaking of movies, (and you know I don’t love movies) Gladwell justifies the artistic license of the sculptor with the same logic from the movie Braveheart. It goes something like this: The winning side is the one that gets the rights to the story and they can tell it however they want.
Gladwell, suggests that it’s all poetic justice. Surely white people have statues of Confederate heroes with their own take on history, now their victims finally get to have their say. The statue does a remarkable job of making an evocative statement about those dark and troubled times.
Back to Braveheart, who cares if Edward The First looks like a horrible despot, it was 700 years ago. As for the statue in Birmingham, both the officer’s widow and the boy depicted are pained by its existence. Is their pain reason enough not to have a greater story told?
Perhaps the context and the lessons are so great that it justifies the depiction.
Cato the Elder said: “…I would rather have people ask why I have no monument than why I have one”
I have more concrete opinions about statues, see my article here.
Here’s a pretty good article about why it doesn’t matter if Braveheart is a mashed up bag of lies.