In a historic move that resonates with the ongoing struggle for racial justice in America, the Washington National Cathedral recently made a significant decision. The iconic cathedral, situated in the nation's capital, replaced its old Confederate-themed stained glass windows with new artwork that pays tribute to the fight for racial equality and justice. This monumental transformation marks a pivotal moment in the cathedral's history and sends a powerful message about the need for change and reconciliation.
The Controversial Confederate Tribute Windows
For more than six decades, the Washington National Cathedral displayed 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, featured scenes depicting Lee and Jackson as almost saintly figures, bathed in heavenly light. Confederate battle flags adorned the windows, making them symbols of America's long and brutal history of the enslavement of Africans and their descendants.
The windows stood as a stark reminder of the depravities of slavery and the Civil War, a legacy that still haunts the nation. The use of Confederate imagery in recent racist violence, such as the Charleston church shooting in 2015 and the Charlottesville rally in 2017, further underscored the need for change. In the wake of growing calls for the removal of the Confederate-themed windows, the Washington National Cathedral took them down and began to explore options for replacing them.
The Birth of "Now and Forever"
After a long search for someone to make a new piece to take the place of the old racist display, the cathedral selected artist Kerry James Marshall in 2021. Marshall's design for the windows is called "Now and Forever", and it honors African Americans at the heart of the Civil Rights struggle in America.
Kerry James Marshall is well-known for portraying the vibrancy, joy, and struggles of Black people in America. "Now and Forever" showcases a march for justice by African Americans. The images depict African Americans of diverse backgrounds marching from left to right, some on foot, and others in wheelchairs. They hold signs that read "FAIRNESS" and "NO FOUL PLAY," and the windows are 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 along with the removal of the Confederate flags and imagery marked a significant turning point for the Washington National Cathedral. The cathedral has always held a special place in the hearts of Americans, and now it can serve as a symbol of hope and reconciliation.
As the cathedral dedicated the new windows, it also unveiled a poem by scholar Elizabeth Alexander titled "American Song." The poem is engraved beneath the windows. The text of the poem calls for the nation to face the truth about its past so that it can move toward a future of healing. The poem is the perfect companion piece to the windows, and it will forever serve as a reminder of the importance of being honest about the past and making equity and justice a national priority.
The Long Road to Racial Justice
Activists across the country have been advocating for racial equity for decades, and there is still a long road ahead. However, the Washington National Cathedral's decision to replace its old Confederate stained glass windows with artwork that honors the struggle for racial justice is a step in the right direction. Even though the windows represent just a small portion of the interior of the cathedral, it is still a significant transformation. If institutions have the capacity to evolve, learn from the past, and work toward a more just and inclusive future, then individuals and communities can too.