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From Shadows to Light: The Washington National Cathedral's Journey Towards Racial Justice

In a historic and impactful move echoing the ongoing struggle for racial justice in America, the Washington National Cathedral recently embarked on a momentous transformation. Nestled in the heart of the nation's capital, this iconic cathedral has exchanged its old Confederate-themed stained-glass windows for new artwork that celebrates the fight for racial equality and justice. This monumental shift marks a defining chapter in the cathedral's history and conveys a resounding message about the imperative for change and reconciliation.

The Controversial Confederate Tribute Windows

For over six decades, the Washington National Cathedral exhibited stained glass windows that paid homage to Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. These windows, created in 1953 and donated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, depicted Lee and Jackson as near-saintly figures, bathed in heavenly radiance, with Confederate battle flags as a backdrop. These windows stood as a stark reminder of the historical horrors of slavery and the Civil War, a legacy still haunting the nation. Recent incidents of racist violence, like the Charleston church shooting in 2015 and the Charlottesville rally in 2017, further underscored the pressing need for change. Responding to mounting calls for the removal of the Confederate-themed windows, the Washington National Cathedral opted to take them down and explore alternative representations.

Kerry James Marshall is an American artist and professor, known for his paintings of Black figures. He previously taught painting at the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In 2017, Marshall was included on the annual Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world. He was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, and moved in childhood to South Central Los Angeles. He has spent much of his career in Chicago, Illinois.

The Birth of "Now and Forever"

After an extensive quest for an artist capable of crafting a new piece to replace the outdated, divisive display, the cathedral chose artist Kerry James Marshall in 2021. Marshall's design for the windows, titled "Now and Forever," pays homage to African Americans at the heart of the Civil Rights struggle in America. Kerry James Marshall is celebrated for his vibrant portrayals of the joy, struggles, and resilience of Black people in America. "Now and Forever" depicts a march for justice by African Americans, featuring individuals from diverse backgrounds walking from left to right, some on foot and others in wheelchairs. They hold signs proclaiming "FAIRNESS" and "NO FOUL PLAY," with the windows bathed in light from the sky-bright panes of white and blue above.

A Symbol of Hope and Reconciliation

The unveiling of the new stained-glass windows, accompanied by the removal of the Confederate flags and imagery, marks a significant turning point for the Washington National Cathedral. This cathedral has always held a special place in the hearts of Americans and can now serve as a symbol of hope and reconciliation. During the dedication of the new windows, the cathedral also revealed a poem by scholar Elizabeth Alexander titled "American Song," engraved beneath the windows. The poem implores the nation to confront its history honestly, paving the way for a future of healing. This poem serves as the perfect companion piece to the windows, a lasting reminder of the significance of acknowledging the past and prioritizing equity and justice on a national scale.

The Long Road to Racial Justice

Activists across the country have tirelessly championed racial equity for decades, and the journey continues. However, the Washington National Cathedral's choice to replace its old Confederate-themed stained-glass windows with artwork that honors the struggle for racial justice is a momentous step in the right direction. Though these windows represent just a small portion of the cathedral's interior, their transformation carries profound significance. It underscores the capacity of institutions to evolve, learn from the past, and strive for a more just and inclusive future. This stands as a compelling reminder that individuals and communities can do the same.


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