Peace and Salvation: Wall of Understanding (completed 1970; whitewashed 1991), 872 N. Orleans.
Painted on the side of Freddie's Liquor Store--located on the fault line between Cabrini-Green and the Gold Coast--this monumental, five-story artwork confronted, in Walker's words, the "idiocy of racism and hate." Sponsored by the nearby Saint Dominic's Church, the Chicago Mural Group, and an association of concerned Cabrini residents called the People's Organization, Walker's mural was started shortly after two white policemen were killed by snipers in the public housing complex.
At its center were hands of different colors pulling apart a gaping wound, revealing figures of angry blacks and whites standing on opposite sides of a barricade. Several Klansmen pose next to a Nazi. A cop faces off against a Black Panther. Other hands poke through windows and fire guns at each other from high-rise buildings. An image of a stained-glass portal hangs over the violent scene: people of all races stand on a globe along with a white dove. Below, there's a march of black leaders--Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, even Cabrini gang members. The mural could be understood both locally and universally.
Though the work was dedicated in a ceremony attended by Jackson, Margaret Burroughs, and others on Halloween 1970, Walker returned to the mural throughout the next decade, repainting the lower part of the wall to reflect such current events as the Vietnam War and Watergate. He eventually abandoned the work, he says, because "people got bad in sniping." The mural was whitewashed in '91 and replaced by advertisements.
All of Mankind (1971-'73), interior and exterior, 617 W. Evergreen, the former San Marcello Mission, now the Strangers Home Missionary Baptist Church.
Walker says he put everything he knew into painting this chapel surrounded by Cabrini-Green high-rises. He even got sculptor Richard Hunt to help him write a grant so he could spend more time on it. Funds were also contributed by the church, its congregation, and the Chicago Mural Group.
The front of the chapel shows a gathering of people with their heads lifted toward heaven. Above them is a list of names and events--civil rights martyrs, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers, and such indignities as the My Lai massacre and Kent State. Four heads, representing different races, are interlocked in an image of brotherhood. The interior shows families of all races and ages communing in love and dignity.
But in the interior, perhaps Walker's most accomplished work, a couple of small figures were left incomplete. In 1973, Father Dennis Kendricks--who had commissioned the mural--was removed by the Catholic archdiocese. Kendricks had attracted some controversy because he ran a drug abuse clinic in the neighborhood. After Walker got Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH involved, area residents raised enough money to pay the church's bills and ensure completion of the mural. When the church was later sold to a new congregation, Walker wasn't allowed to return.
History of the Packinghouse Worker (1974), 4859 S. Wabash, former site of the Amalgamated Meatcutters Union Hall.
"My people are workers," Walker says. Here he pays tribute to them. Before painting the mural, he boned up on labor history--reading such books as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and attending college classes--and then undertook a study of contemporary working conditions by visiting packinghouses and talking to union officials and employees. The right side of the wall shows slaughterhouse workers--mostly minorities and immigrants--toiling at various jobs, while the left side shows them confronting management and demanding better working conditions.
Oddly, Chicago, hog butcher for the world, has little public art dealing with its rich history of union organizing and working-class conflict. WPA murals of the 30s--not known for their social commentary--largely avoided the theme of the exploited worker. But Walker's visually complex piece, like Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" cycle at the Detroit Institute of Arts, depicts both the dignity and indignity of labor. Who, one wonders, are the slabs of meat?
The mural, on the south face of an abandoned building, is fading fast and may soon be history. Filmmaker Frank Fuller put together a short documentary on the making of the mural; it's available from the Woodson Regional Library.
Wall of Daydreaming, Man's Inhumanity to Man (1975), 47th and Calumet, northeast corner, by Bill Walker, Mitchell Caton, Santi Isrowuthakul, and Siddha Webber (text).
Located in a rough neighborhood, this work doesn't pull any punches--it's as censorious as street murals get. It depicts, in richly symbolic language, a community enslaved by poverty, drug addiction, prostitution, ill-gotten wealth, and gang warfare. It's still urgent, too: the subject matter continues to mirror the surroundings.
The mural's jazzy, African-influenced left side, Wall of Daydreaming, is mostly Mitchell Caton's composition, but those are Walker's portraits of Klansmen and the so-called "Mayor of 47th Street," a drug pusher with skulls in his eyes. The right side, Man's Inhumanity to Man, is Walker's work. Men are positioned as pieces on a chessboard. One figure with a limo strapped to its back stands next to starving children holding empty plates. It's not all bleak, however. Siddha Webber wrote on the mural, among other things: "Love will give us connection 2 the SOURCE."
California mural historian Jim Prigoff calls this "one of the most significant murals in the U.S. It puts the issues of the community right out there, instead of having hidden agendas. If we had dealt with those issues then, maybe we wouldn't be where we are today....In the tradition of the great Mexican masters, this mural tells the truth."
Justice Speaks: Delbert Tibbs--New Trial or Freedom (1976-'77), 57th and Lake Park, northwest corner of the Metra underpass.
Black Chicagoan Delbert Tibbs was found guilty in Florida of raping a white woman and murdering her husband. He was sentenced to death. During his appeal, new information emerged: the woman's description of the attacker didn't match Tibbs. The Florida Supreme Court granted him a retrial.
Walker painted the mural over a two-year period while Tibbs's life hung in the balance. It shows Tibbs as a pawn on a chessboard, awaiting his fate. In a 1991 interview for the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art, Walker told mural historian Victor Sorell that it was never his intention to set Tibbs free: "I didn't do it because I thought Tibbs was innocent now. I did it because I thought it was a fair decision on the part of the Supreme Court of Florida, who said that there had to be more or better evidence. I thought that in itself was worthy of attention."
The charges were eventually dropped, and Tibbs later wrote a poem about his ordeal on death row--he had a friend, sign painter Donnie Carter, letter it on the wall.
Childhood Is Without Prejudice (1977), 56th and Stony Island, southeast corner of the Metra underpass.
While Walker claims he doesn't have a favorite mural, he says this one is his "most important." He painted it as a tribute to Bret Harte School, which is located in Hyde Park, across the street from the mural. Walker's daughter had gone there, and classes contained students of all races. Walker says he wanted to express his appreciation to the school for promoting racial harmony in its classrooms. The work has a simple yet powerful design, and its central image is one he used often: a series of interlocking faces representing all races.
Artists Olivia Gude and Bernard Williams repainted the mural four years ago, the Chicago Public Art Group's first large-scale restoration. Walker had to be persuaded that it wasn't a lost cause. To the artists' surprise, he even stopped by to help paint and to offer advice.
The mural's message, Walker says, "might look like a simple proposition, but it's not easy. It's tremendously challenging. It's difficult for all groups to unite in that way because there's so many prejudices on all sides. People don't necessarily wish to be involved in interracial friendships. What I'm proposing is a very difficult challenge. I did the mural in the name of goodwill, hoping people will consider taking on the challenge. I enjoyed doing that."