ARI SHAPIRO, host:
If the Obamas have time to do any sightseeing, they could drop by a place that has been described as the most beautiful building in Washington's Federal Triangle. There are more than 50 murals on the walls. It's not the National Gallery of Art, or any of the art museums for that matter.
Ms. WINIFRED HEART (Former Tour Guide, Justice Department): Welcome to the Department of Justice. We're delighted to have you here.
SHAPIRO: This is one of the Justice Department's most famous tour guides. Winifred Heart has been retired for a while now. But back in 1996, the Justice Department recorded her giving this guided tour.
Ms. HEART: I don't like to talk about the people next door, but they have perfectly hideous walls and not very nice ceilings.
SHAPIRO: As Winifred Heart put it, the Justice Department is loaded with symbolism.
Ms. HEART: We drip symbolism in this building. This building is a sermon, a hymn to justice.
SHAPIRO: If that sermon, if the hymn were purely predictable, it wouldn't be much worth talking about. Of course the building has flags, eagles, scales of justice, everything you would expect. But there's also real art. Dynamic paintings that were progressive, controversial, even radical in their time. For example, in the 1930s, the Justice Department installed a mural that showed black and white students being educated together. The art showed a dream that democracy had not yet realized. Washington, D.C. was still a segregated city. Virginia Mecklenburg is a curator from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Ms. VIRGINIA MECKLENBURG (Senior Curator, Smithsonian American Art Museum): The whole scheme of all the murals in the Justice Department was really a grand epic view of the role of law in American society.
SHAPIRO: The building was brand new. America was struggling through the Great Depression, and the country's most prestigious artists of the day competed to win commissions for paintings that would show how law and justice can make life better for everyone.
Ms. MECKLENBURG: So these were going to be the shining stars that launched this program that they were hoping would put murals in post offices and federal buildings all over the country. It was a real initiative to take art to the American people, and not just people who were used to looking at art. It was a way to get art into the heartland of America.
SHAPIRO: One of the most arresting paintings in the building has a place of honor in the Justice Department. It hangs just above the main library, around the corner from the office where the attorney general works every day. It's an anti-lynching mural.
Mr. ROGER KENNEDY (Director Emeritus, National Museum of American History): There is a cowering or terrified person on the steps of the courthouse, with the judge coming forward from the court, standing off a lynch mob in bandannas with a flame of hate rising behind them.
SHAPIRO: Roger Kennedy is director emeritus of the National Museum of American History, and he used to be the director of the National Park Service. He's writing a book called "When Art Worked." And he was an attorney at the Justice Department in the 1950s.
Mr. KENNEDY: When we worked here, we'd show up here to go do our - get our briefs together. We thought we were serving the cause of justice, and this thing said to us, it's not foolish or proud or vainglorious to think that you're participating in the noble work of American justice. This is what you're here for. Go to work. Do it better.
SHAPIRO: So every attorney at the Department of Justice going into the library to research a legal brief will walk under this image?
Mr. KENNEDY: Yeah. Yeah, and you hope that it takes.
SHAPIRO: It really is striking. One would expect in a building like this to see images of America at its finest. We walk into the Department of Justice, and in the main library there's an image of what might be considered America at - near its worst.
Mr. KENNEDY: Yes, absolutely. This is art really doing its work, and it tells us what our country is really like. And incidentally, it's inescapably us. Not somebody else. Not the founders. Not the 19th century, because they're - what illuminates the scene are two things, the flame of hate in the back and the car headlights in the front.
SHAPIRO: And it is only the judge that is holding that back from the man cowering on the steps.
Mr. KENNEDY: That's right.
SHAPIRO: One man in the lynch mob wears a dapper linen suit and a hat. In the back of the mob, two girls are waving. They look like they're having a good time. The man holding the lynching rope has his face covered, so does the man cowering on the steps. It's as if both the hunter and the hunted could be anyone. When John Steuart Curry painted this mural in the 1930s, lynching was a serious problem in America. Curry submitted one sketch after another to the Fine Arts commission, and the commission kept rejecting the sketches and sending them back before finally settling on the design that now hangs over the library. Curator Virginia Mecklenburg.
Ms. MECKLENBURG: There's this wonderful letter. A very nice letter, but a very firm letter from a man named Edward Roan(ph) who was essentially running the program at this - the mural program at this point, saying, you know, you're a terrific painter, and we really like the ideas that you talked about. But we can't accept these murals, because we don't think they are your best work.
SHAPIRO: Tough words for one of America's top artists. Mecklenburg says there was just so much riding on these murals. They were meant to launch a program that would inspire America and give the country hope.
Ms. MECKLENBURG: The Depression was awful. There were bread lines everywhere. And somehow to suggest that we really are a civilized society. And in the case of the Justice Department, murals, everything having to do with law, that we can't slip back. That it would be terrifying if we lost, even in this dreadful time, we lost everything that we had achieved as we'd gone through the 18th, 19th, and 20th century to build the institutions that guide our lives.
SHAPIRO: Now a new attorney general is about to go through confirmation hearings. Eric Holder is set to become the first black attorney general in American history. When he walks through the halls of the Justice Department, he will pass all these murals, reminding him that this is his story and ours, and that his job is justice. The Justice Department is not open to the public, so you can't see these murals in person, but we have detailed images of them at npr.org. This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.
INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.
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