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OP-ED: Biden gets the symbolism right

Norman Stockwell
Progressive Media Project (TNS)
President Joe Biden prepares to sign a series of executive orders at the Resolute desk in the Oval Office just hours after his inauguration on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/TNS)

One of Donald Trump’s first acts on moving into the White House in January 2017 was to hang a portrait of Andrew Jackson, the former U.S. president and known racist, in the Oval Office.

When Joe Biden moved into the Oval Office on Jan. 20, even before signing his first 17 executive orders and directives, he had the Jackson portrait removed and replaced with a portrait of Founding Father Benjamin Franklin. He also installed sculptures of Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

The bust of labor union organizer Chavez, by artist Paul A. Suarez, sits on a small table behind the Resolute desk, looking down on photos of Biden’s family. The bust of civil rights activist Parks is by Detroit-based artist Artis Lane, whose 2009 bust of Sojourner Truth is also featured in the nearby U.S. Capitol. The bust of King, by Charles Henry Alston, was the first image of an African American ever displayed in the White House, when it was initially placed there in 1990.

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Biden’s choices of these symbols are not arbitrary. On his first day in office, Biden proposed legislation to allow migrant farmworkers access to “green cards” for legal work status. Paul Chavez, son of the late labor leader, told CNN, “It represents the hopes and aspirations of an entire community that has been demonized and belittled, and we hope this is the beginning of a new day, a new dawn in which the contributions of all Americans can be cherished and valued.”

Biden has often quoted King, and did so again on his personal Twitter feed on Jan. 18, saying the late civil rights leader’s “words remind us that darkness cannot drive out darkness and hate cannot drive out hate.”

As a U.S. senator, Biden was a co-sponsor of the 2005 resolution to allow Rosa Parks to lie in honor in the U.S. Capitol after her October death (the first woman ever to be so honored), and in January 2006 he co-sponsored the bill to issue a commemorative postage stamp in her honor.

Just this past December, in an “off-the-record” internet conversation, Biden reportedly told a group of supporters, “Sixty-five years after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, the definition of ‘civil rights’ should be expanded to include the rights of women, Hispanics, Asians, Muslims, immigrants, the elderly, the LGBTQ community, the mentally ill, the physically impaired, and others.”

Biden wanted “to walk into an Oval that looked like America and started to show the landscape of who he is going to be as president,” deputy director of Oval Office operations Ashley Williams told The Washington Post.

The portrait of Franklin, deemed to represent Biden’s interest in following the guidance of science (although it is worth noting that Franklin also founded the U.S. Postal Service, which Trump attacked), and a bust of Eleanor Roosevelt, former first lady and architect of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, also send a message about the new president’s priorities.

Elsewhere in the room, facing the desk, a portrait of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is hung — perhaps to remind the room’s new occupant of the history of a Democratic president who came into office at a time of both economic and social crisis and united a nation with government-sponsored programs that rebuilt a society.

Joe Biden has quickly managed to install the right symbols. Now he will need the courage, perseverance and support that it will take to transform a wounded and bitterly divided nation.

— Norman Stockwell is publisher of The Progressive, This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project and distributed by Tribune News Service.