Timothy Brannon lay down on the concrete pavement in front of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s headquarters in Montgomery, Alabama, and raised his fist.
He was not leading a Black Lives Matter rally or a voting rights demonstration. But he was making a bold statement of hope and perseverance in the ongoing fight for justice in America –putting his voice behind the rising movement to demand equity for all.
The moment came last week as Brannon, 17, participated in the unveiling ceremony for the new John Lewis Voting Rights Mural, which graces the SPLC’s front entrance. In vibrant color, it pays homage to two civil rights giants we lost this year – Congressman John Lewis and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Alongside the mural is an outline of a person, fist in air, with words – “Lay here & take your photo!” – that encourage visitors to put themselves in the artwork and, by extension, engage in the movement.
Brannon, a senior at Booker T. Washington Magnet High, a visual and performing arts school in Montgomery, helped paint the mural along with Heaven Harper, a junior at the same school, and local artist Michelle Browder.
“For me, this was a really life-changing experience to be a part of something of this magnitude,” Brannon said. “It’s really just changing lives with art because I love art. We all have to be the change that we want to see in the world.”
The mural – part of the SPLC’s ongoing effort to partner with members of the communities it serves – was designed by Browder, whose art has been displayed at the Rosa Parks Museum in downtown Montgomery and in galleries around the world. She also leads I Am More Than, a youth empowerment nonprofit that hosts community conversations, arts-centered programs for schools and youth-led conferences. Brannon and Harper took part in the project as students of the organization.
Browder is also the artist behind Montgomery’s historic Black Lives Matter mural, and she owns and operates More Than Tours, which provides educational and interactive tours of Montgomery to students and visitors.
The SPLC’s slogan, “The March Continues,” appears throughout the mural, which also features a commanding image of Congressman Lewis, the Alabama native who helped organize and lead the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” voting rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
“John Lewis used to come here every year,” Browder said, “and so I thought that would be a great way to honor him and also to use what’s happening today [at SPLC], where the march continues.”
In recent years, Congressman Lewis led gatherings of congressional and civil rights leaders in wreath-laying ceremonies at the Civil Rights Memorial across the street from the SPLC’s headquarters. The Memorial, also commissioned by the SPLC, records the names of 40 martyrs – chronicling their deaths and other major events of the movement in lines that radiate like the hands of a clock.
“When I think about John Lewis on that bridge and the Selma-to-Montgomery march and so many who stood in the face of so much hatred and violence, I deeply appreciate them for that,” said Tafeni English, director of the SPLC’s Civil Rights Memorial Center, which includes interpretive exhibits about civil rights martyrs.
“And we here at the Civil Rights Memorial Center and the residents and community of Montgomery don’t want anyone to forget that countless people died for the right to vote.”
The mural also features a striking image of Justice Ginsburg, honoring the trailblazer who made it her mission to guarantee equal protection for women and other marginalized communities. Just above sits her famous quote: “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”
Justice Ginsburg, too, had a connection to the SPLC.
In 1973, a sex discrimination case filed by SPLC co-founder Joe Levin reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and Justice Ginsburg, then a lawyer with the ACLU, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Levin’s position. Levin authorized her to use part of his oral argument time before the Court and, together, they secured an 8-1 landmark decision, paving the way for U.S. servicewomen to receive the same benefits as men.
As the artists were planning to paint the mural, they lay down on the pavement in front of the SPLC to get a feel for it, Browder said. She hopes visitors will actively engage with the piece and have thought-provoking conversations about it.
“Apathy is not an option,” she said. “You’ve got to get involved. You’ve got to participate.”
Echoing Lewis’ famous quote about urging people to get into “good trouble” while advocating for social justice, Browder said, “Hopefully the march will continue and people will get in good trouble. That’s the message. Get in good trouble.”
Photos by Jill Friedman