Signs of Hope in Biden’s Oval Decor: Exit Jackson and Churchill; Enter Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez

 By Brian Larkin

On the day of Joe Biden’s inauguration, something truly extraordinary caught my attention. It was not the tiny American flags on the mall or the beautifully poised 22-year old Black woman poet performing her spoken-word piece. It was not even the arrival of the Second Gentleman in the White House.

It was the image of Biden signing a stack of Executive Orders rescinding Trump’s previous orders, ending the Muslim Ban, ending funding for the Border Wall, re-joining the Paris Accord, and more. Biden had had a bit of redecorating done in the Oval Office, the office in which Trump ranted and Nixon ordered the covert bombing of Cambodia. At that desk Truman signed the order that sent the Enola Gay to bomb Hiroshima, and three days later sent another plane to drop the Hydrogen bomb on Nagasaki. In that office, surrounded by the trappings of power, 45 previous presidents have presided over one of the most militaristic nations in history.

Portrait of Andrew Jackson. Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain.

Biden removed a portrait that had hung in the Oval during Trump’s time, that of Andrew Jackson, who, as a General in the US Army, led the Creek and Seminole Wars, and as President signed the Indian Removal Act, which paved the way for forced, genocidal expulsion of tens of thousands of Native American from their land into the West. A southern icon, Jackson had also stood against the emerging movement for the abolition of slavery. The removal of his portrait from the Oval on day one resonates with the wave of removals of statues of Confederate soldiers and other white supremacists and symbolizes Biden’s intention to confront racist violence in America.

His portrait was replaced with a large portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, perhaps the most progressive of American presidents, who used the power of government to lift the country out of the devastating depression of the 1930’s, a clear indication of Biden’s intention to leverage his position as Executive to lead the country through the present crisis.

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Photo Source: US Embassy in Guinea. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Alongside a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. already there, Biden installed busts of Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt and Cesar Chavez. The bust of Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt begin to rectify the omission of women from the public narrative of American struggles for justice. Eleanor Roosevelt, was an early civil rights activist, and later spoke out prominently for nuclear disarmament.

Rosa Parks in the foreground with Martin Luther King in the background. Credit. Ebony Magazine. Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Most people know that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus. Perhaps less known is that Parks had been a Secretary of the local NAACP chapter for years, and that the black Women’s Political Caucus, led by Jo Anne Robinson conceived the idea of the Montgomery bus boycott, drafted a call out letter and clandestinely printed thousands of copies in the offices of their workplace at the University. Because of those leaflets the whole black community stayed off the buses the next day, beginning the boycott that launched the brilliant young Rev Martin Luther King Jr on the path of leadership with the civil rights movement. History tends to celebrate visible leaders and individual heroic actions like those of Parks. Perhaps what the Oval office needs are murals of the many, millions of people whose combined actions transform injustice.

By spotlighting Parks, King and Chavez, with of a woman of colour as Vice President, and appointing the most racially and gender diverse Cabinet in US history, Biden is signalling that the administration will champion equality and civil rights. With a swathe of Executive Orders Biden is already delivering on social justice: reinstating access to health care for millions of low income people, increasing immigration quotas and ordering that all children of immigrants who were separated be reunited with their families.  

These three champions of social justice all embraced nonviolence and civil disobedience as a method of achieving justice. King and Parks are no doubt well known to readers. Co-founder of the United Farmworkers of America, Cesar Chavez may be less known this side of the Atlantic. Influenced by Gandhi, Chavez unionized farmworkers and gained contracts improving working conditions and wages for farmworkers in the California grape industry.

Cesar Chavez at a UFW rally in Delano, California in 1972. Wikimedia. CC by Attribution 3.0 Unported license (sic).

Millions of people, in the US and in Europe, boycotted grapes – making a sacrifice in solidarity with the most exploited workers in America. In 1968 Chavez fasted for 25 days. He was joined by Robert Kennedy. Cesar said “Farm workers everywhere are angry and worried that we cannot win without violence. We have proved it before through … hard work, faith and willingness to sacrifice. We can win and keep our own self-respect and build a great union that will secure the spirit of all people if we do it through a rededication and recommitment to the struggle for justice through nonviolence.”

I had the good fortune to work with the UFW on the second grape boycott in the 1980s organising a speaking tour for Cesar Chavez. This boycott focused on the use of toxic pesticides, exposure to which was causing serious health issues for farmworkers and cancer clusters in agrarian communities. By this time Cesar’s concerns were, like the later King, more holistic. He described grape vines being injected with a chemical that swelled the grapes, roots of citrus trees being injected with fungicides that were absorbed into the flesh of the fruits, and a machine that grabbed the almond trees and shook them to bring down the nuts, branches, leaves, all. “The poor trees,” he said. He was already sick with cancer and one of my responsibilities was to arrange macrobiotic meals at stops on the tour.  

Cesar Chavez at Michigan State University. East Lansing. 1987.

Cesar went on a long fast in 1988 that reflected these ecological concerns. “I have been studying the plague of pesticides on our land and our food” he said. “The evil is far greater than even I had thought,… it threatens to choke out the life of our people and also the life system that supports us all. The solution to this deadly crisis will not be found in the arrogance of the powerful, but in solidarity with the weak and helpless. I pray to God that this fast will be a preparation for a multitude of simple deeds for justice. Carried out by men and women whose hearts are focused on the suffering of the poor and who yearn, with us, for a better world. Together, all things are possible.”

Like many who engage in struggles for justice, Chavez is a mixed figure. He has been criticised for association with a discredited cult and some historians argue that his efforts to build a farmworkers’ union (an exceptionally difficult task due to dispersed workplaces and migrant workforce) ended in failure. Yet he remains a Hispanic icon.

It’s impossible to know exactly what Biden means by placing the images of these civil rights leaders in his office. After all, Donald Trump incongruously kept the bust of King. Co-founder of the UFW Delores Huerta said “It’s really a very strong message that the strongest person in the whole world, the president of the United States of America, would have a bust of Cesar Chavez, a very simple, humble farmworker… who dedicated his life to make life better for the poorest of the poor – it indicated that the president is saying to everybody, I am your servant leader, and I am here to serve you.” Perhaps.

First female Mexican American union leader, Dolores Huerta. By Yreina Cervántez. Los Angeles. CC by 2.0.

If that is so, might the inclusion of these 3 proponents of nonviolence in the pantheon of American heroes suggest more than a promise to promote civil rights and equality for women and people of colour? King can mean different things to different people. Most Americans today remember the Montgomery bus boycott, his “I Have a Dream” speech, perhaps his letter from the Birmingham jail, and Selma. Few remember his speech at Riverside Church where he condemned the US war in Vietnam, calling America the “greatest purveyor of violence on our planet” and denounced the triple evils of racism, materialism and militarism in America as inextricably intertwined.

Judging from Biden’s long record of support for the military, including Obama’s ten year upgrade of nuclear weapons at a cost of $1 trillion, and his support for the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq where a million Iraqi people died, it seems likely that for Biden the bust of King will be a reminder of his narrower civil rights legacy. Let us hope that he may also go with King all the way to embrace his holistic vision laid out at Riverside Church. 

If Biden ignores the legacy of King in those last years and continues to support the largest military budget on the planet and to maintain a nuclear arsenal capable of destruction of all life on earth, then the civil rights, and racial justice agenda will fail because ultimately, as King insisted, racism and materialism are interconnected with militarism.  In the end, the people cannot wait for a president to lead us – we must push for peace and justice with all the nonviolent tools at our disposal.  


There are lots more great articles in P&J News. Read the full issue here. 

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