Many clergy from historically black churches in the Washington area, as well as leaders from social justice organizations, attended the dedication service. Prayers, Bible readings and short speeches were interspersed with gospel music and spirituals, as well as the contemporary song “Heal Our Land.”
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court, read from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” she read in King’s famous message while imprisoned in Alabama. “The purpose of America is freedom. …We will gain our freedom.” A week earlier, she spoke on the 60th anniversary of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four young black girls.
The new windows, titled ‘Now and Forever’, are based on a design by artist Kerry James Marshall. Stained glass craftsman Andrew Goldkuhle designed the windows based on this model.
In the new work, African Americans parade – on foot or in wheelchairs – from left to right through the four windows. Some walk in profile; some face the viewer directly with signs proclaiming “FAIRNESS” and “NO FOUL PLAY.” Light floods the bright white and blue panels above the figures.
Marshall, born in Birmingham in 1955, invited everyone who viewed the new windows or other works of art inspired by social justice, “to imagine themselves as the subject and author of a never-ending story that still remains to be told. »
The setting is particularly significant in the immense neo-Gothic cathedral, which regularly hosts ceremonies linked to major national events. It is full of iconography depicting American history on glass, stone and other media. Images range from presidents to famous cultural figures and state symbols.
But the Lee and Jackson windows “told a story that was not a true story,” according to the Very Reverend Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean of the cathedral. They were installed in 1953 and donated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy,
The displays exalted generals fighting for a cause that sought to “consecrate slavery in our country forever,” Hollerith said.
He added: “You cannot call yourself the National Cathedral, a house of prayer for all, when there are windows that are deeply offensive to a large portion of Americans. »
The cathedral accompanied the replacement of the windows with a number of public forums discussing the legacy of racism and how the monuments were used to burnish the Confederacy’s image as a noble “lost cause.”
The new windows will also be accompanied by a poem by researcher Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Mellon Foundation. The poem “American Song” will be engraved under the windows.
“A single voice is raised, then another,” we can read. “We must tell the truth about our history. …Let this portal be the place where the light enters.”
Alexander said in an interview Friday that the poem refers to both the literal light from the windows, which she said beautifully illuminates the surrounding stone, and the figurative light that “allows us to see ourselves fully and in community.” .
Setting is important in a sanctuary that is also “a common space, a space that tourists visit, a space where the nation mourns,” Alexander said. “The story (that the windows tell) is that of a collective movement, of progress, of people fighting and affirming the values of fairness for all. »
The removal of the old windows follows the use of Confederate imagery by the racist gunman who massacred members of a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, and by protesters at a rally of far-right protests in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, which ended with the death of the counter-protester.
The original windows, featuring Confederate battle flags, depicted Lee and Jackson as holy figures, with Lee bathed in rays of heavenly light and Jackson welcomed by trumpets to heaven after his death. These stained glass windows are now preserved by the cathedral.
The cathedral is also the seat of the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Washington.
The bishop of the diocese, the Right Reverend Mariann Edgar Budde, joined Hollerith to deliver the opening address at the dedication.
Hollerith recalled the decision to remove the Confederate windows.
“They were contrary to our call to be a house of prayer for all,” he said, adding: “There is still much work to be done.” »