In 1969, the Houston-based art collectors and civil rights activists Dominique and John de Menil purchased the third “multiple” of “Broken Obelisk” (above), a sculpture by 20th-century American artist Barnett Newman. They planned to donate it to the city of Houston where it was to be displayed at City Hall. But when the city of Houston learned that the couple planned to dedicate the work to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been assassinated by a White Supremacist the previous year, the city refused the gift. Rebuffed by the city government, they decided to install the sculpture on the grounds of the Rothko Chapel, designed by artist Mark Rothko and completed in what is now Houston’s museum district in 1971.
(Read about the legacy of this work in Houston here. Warning: the link contains graphic images of vandalism by White Supremacists.)
Our daughters, ages 8 and 10, have visited the site many times over the years. It’s always a magical visit for our family, although our girls are still too young to understand the sculpture’s historical and present-day significance.
Given the history of racist violence in southeast Texas, where Tracie was born and where we have lived for the last nine years, it was devastating to learn that White Supremacists planned to build a neo-Confederate memorial along Interstate 10 in Orange, Texas where Tracie grew up and where we spend a lot of time with our children.
In 2017, despite Herculean efforts by the Orange city government to stop them, the Sons of Confederate Veterans completed the “Memorial of the Wind,” featuring Lost Cause battle flags, including the Confederate flag — now a neo-Confederate flag.
The following year, Tracie and I began protesting the site regularly. And we also began raising money to display an MLK billboard across the road.
(Our efforts are documented on our site, RepurposeMemorial.com.)
Because of health concerns, we won’t be organizing a protest on MLK Day 2022, Monday, January 17. But we will be raising a billboard. And if we can raise enough funds, it will stay in place throughout Black History Month (February).
The City of Orange tried unsuccessfully to block the construction of the memorial, which lies on private property owned by the Sons. But they did manage to limit the height of the flagpoles so they can’t be seen from the freeway. It sits on MLK Dr., one of the town’s major arteries. For the people who have to drive by it every day, it is a reminder of the racist violence that has plagued the city since Reconstruction and beyond.
Our hopes that the site will be repurposed are dim. But we are committed to reminding the community, half of which is black, that the conspicuous public display of racist paraphernalia is unacceptable today. As a famous winemaker once said, sometimes the battles you know you will lose are the most important ones to wage. We will never abandon our efforts.
In recent weeks, I have been inspired by the words of critical theorist and activist bell hooks, who passed away this month.
In her 1994 essay “Love as the Practice of Freedom,” she wrote that “the moment we choose to love, we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love, we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.”
Tracie and I continue to love Orange, Texas and the people who live there. They are our people and we know that love will ultimately triumph there.
In the meantime, we hope you will consider giving to our campaign. And if you cannot give, please share the link with your community.
May G-d bless Orange, Texas. May G-d bless the neo-Confederates. May G-d bless us all. Thank you for your support and solidarity.