“You learn from everything around,” Dr Doris Derby said during a visit in Atlanta to the latest human rights murals commissioned by the Not A Crime campaign. “So if you can’t get the books from anywhere else, make up your own books; and use pictures if they don’t want you to use words, and have conversations about what you are doing.”
Dr Derby spoke from experience: as an activist in the 1954-1968 Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, as well as a prominent documentary photographer and retired anthropology professor, she was uniquely qualified to discuss human rights and especially the struggle to overcome the denial of education.
“Use pictures” is what the Not A Crime campaign does — in order to have conversations about an ongoing human rights crisis in Iran. The Iranian government bars thousands of young Baha’is, members of the country’s largest religious minority, from university simply because of their beliefs. Not A Crime, which has been endorsed by a string of notables including Nobel laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Dr Shirin Ebadi, produces murals around the world — in at least a dozen cities so far — to raise awareness of this and to spark an online conversation about education.
The Atlanta murals were produced by three local artists at the same time as it was reported that four more Baha’is were arrested in Iran partly for peacefully protesting the denial of their right to attend university. One of them was 20-year-old Rouhie Safajoo who was held in solitary confinement for several days after she wrote a letter to the authorities.
A new initiative in the Not A Crime campaign, starting this week in Atlanta before continuing later this year in Harlem, New York City, aims to learn from the experience of the American Civil Rights movement and its struggle for education equality. Rachel Wolfe, who commissioned the new murals in Atlanta on behalf of Not A Crime, said that Atlanta lends a “powerful voice” to the project because of its unique history.
“Watch me Learn” by Charmaine Minniefield (still in progress) in Atlanta, Georgia
“This was and is a current issue for the South of the United States,” Wolfe said. “Education is hugely important. Communities here have been through many of the issues that currently affect Iranian Baha’is, sometimes more severely than the Baha’is, sometimes less, and we wanted to take the context of the African American community in the South, and what they went through with education, to use it as a voice of solidarity and support for the Baha’is in Iran.”
The connection between the American South and Not A Crime began in 2014 when Maziar Bahari, the Iranian-Canadian journalist and filmmaker who founded the campaign, as well as founding IranWire, screened his documentary To Light a Candle at the Carter Center. Bahari’s film – which tells the story of the persecution of Iranian Baha’is and their creation of an “underground” university to pursue their right to study – prompted “strong feedback from the local civil rights community,” Wolfe said, “who felt connected with the Bahai story.”
Three murals were painted concurrently this past week in Atlanta, each by a local artist, and each of whom responded to different aspects of the education equality issue to create their piece. The three murals were all painted at the corner of Jackson St and Edgewood St in Atlanta’s historic King District – where Martin Luther King’s church still stands and where the Civil Rights leader is buried.
“Watch Me Learn,” by Charmaine Minniefield, was inspired by a photograph taken by Dr Derby, which is now part of a travelling exhibit. Her piece, depicting several African Americans reading against a backdrop of the American flag, is meant to serve “as a visual monument of social justice, which recalls the promise of freedom in America today,” she said. Minniefield’s aim was to memorialize “the daily lives of individuals who were taking matters into their own hands to make possible basic inalienable rights — like education.” The piece calls to mind a similar effort by the Baha’is in Iran to overcome education inequality by creating the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, an informal and distance-learning initiative that offers young Baha’is the chance to study denied them by their government.
Joe Dreher’s mural “Educate, Elevate, Empower” depicts an angel reading a book while watched over by a guardian figure. “Education is a vital part of life,” Dreher said, “and to deny it to anyone as a means to oppress them should certainly be considered a crime to humanity.”
The third mural explores the question of propaganda and indoctrination in the education system. Fabian Williams, responding to widespread criticism in the United States that public education curricula give insufficient space to the history of the Civil Rights movement and its leaders, as well as African American history more generally, conceived his “Paragraphalizer” mural as a satire on the production and distribution of versions of history that limit the chance for both African American and white students to understand the full history of the United States.
Williams’s work, Wolfe said, “looks at how curricula have affected young students, both white and black, when you’re not fully telling the story of your own history … if you’re not having an appropriate curriculum then you’re still finding ways to make education a tool for propaganda and almost a weapon” against disadvantaged or persecuted minorities.
“Paragraphalizer” evokes a similar and even more extreme state-led effort in Iran where for generations school textbooks have demonized the Baha’i community as “unclean,” “Zionists,” “infidels,” and even people with tails who have sexual intercourse with their siblings.
Local reaction to the pieces was cautious, at first; the King District has experienced recent gentrifying shifts, and longstanding residents have been wary of projects started by outsiders or newcomers. But public support grew as the local community understood the purpose of the murals.
“That was the interesting part of the community engagement,” Wolfe explained. “People weren’t sure what we were painting. But when it became clear that it was about education and the importance of education for your community, suddenly the tone shifted, and everyone became super-positive. Everyone’s been coming up, engaging with the murals, talking with the artists, and people have been excited that we’re doing this in their neighborhood.”
Willy, an Atlanta local who sleeps on the lot of a gas station by the new murals, was at first skeptical. He was worried that the project was another example of the gentrification that has displaced people like him off the streets and out of their homes. But after talking to the artists and meeting the Not A Crime team, Willy liked what he saw; he visited the murals as they were being painted and even helped erect the scaffolding.
"Education gets you far in life," Willy said. "You can’t go nowhere without it. My education was 11th grade level but I’m still surviving. So the artists are trying to get out there about education ... they're trying to let the world just see it and view it best way they can. It’s a beautiful portrait – so come down and look at it and life will be much easier with it."