Whitewashing American History: the WPA Mural Controversy in San Francisco

Painting by Gilbert Stuart – Public Domain

There has a been a controversy percolating the last couple of years over protests against the “Life of Washington” murals painted in 1935-36 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. Seeking to portray the brutal reality of U.S. history, a reality that the ruling class – and textbooks – has always sought to falsify and obscure, the radical artist was in many ways far ahead of his time.

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 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 this vital freedom is being undermined not only by white supremacists and Trump but by “identity politics” Democrats.

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 lightning rate into public school curricula. I think it possible that there is actually a deep well of US patriotism that lurks behind the anti-mural campaign.”

Defending the Arnautoff Murals

Every year in San Francisco during the entire month of July, Labor Fest 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 at the high school in 1968-1974. All of the panelists opposed the destruction of the Arnautoff murals. (See this video 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 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.” “That trauma worked its way through me and made me into an artist,” Crumpler declares. “I showed that image to my children because like my mother, I wanted them to confront this horror….” 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, 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

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 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.

That year 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 witch hunts, 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 Record by California Congressman Donald L. Jackson, representing Santa Monica, who replaced 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, which claimed they “tend to promote racial hatred and class warfare.” (See Grey Brechin, “Trial of the Rincon Annex Murals”.) The longshore union organized black workers into the union, showing class solidarity 31 years before the Civil Rights Act (which long-time Dixiecrat Lyndon Johnson signed in 1965, 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. An Arnautoff mural in Richmond, California, painted in 1936, just two years after the tumultuous maritime strike, prominently show an integrated longshore work force which made class struggle possible.

Defending the Refregier murals telling 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 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 privateers 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.

Along with hard-core privatizer and union-basher Matthews, Stevon Cook, president of the S.F. 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,” supposedly set up to help teachers, as a tool to target black, Latino, senior and dissident teachers. He justifies this by 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 of California is 41st on spending per student, but first in per prisoner expenses.

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, many of them reading “End White Silence.” Yet they are helping to silence and blot out 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 at SF State.  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 distortion 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. 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”.

Defending Art that Seeks to Tell the Truth About History

Victor 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 his politics. 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. Others like performing artists Paul Robeson and Woody Guthrie, who were his comrades, 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; 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.

In 2016, a contingent of longshore workers travelled 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. Where were the identity politics folks during these real struggles in defense of Native Americans and African Americans? Liberal white guilt groups like SURJ seeking “culturally safe” schools (!) by censoring radical anti-racist art certainly won’t stop the racists.

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.”

This essay first appeared on The Internationalist.

Jack Heyman is a retired Oakland ILWU longshoreman who was an organizer in San Francisco of the historic 1984 union boycott action of a ship from aparthied South Africa, the 2008 May Day anti-war protest shutting down all West Coast ports against the U.S. imperialist war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the militant 1997 Bay Area solidarity port actions for the Liverpool dockers and numerous anti-Zionist port protests from 2002-2021. He published the class struggle Maritime Worker Monitor with the late Portland longshoreman Jack Mulcahy who died last year in a mountain-climbing accident on North Sister peak in Oregon.