As hundreds of Black Austinites flocked to Givens Park on Friday to celebrate Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, Michael "Malik" Williams was working.
Over the last year, give or take, he's been painting a mural. First, it was to commemorate the life of his friend Andre Davis, who was shot and killed in the park last April. Then, people started reaching out, asking him to put their loved ones on the wraparound piece just off the parking lot. Then he started using it as a space to commemorate Black lives.
It's a work in progress, he admits, and he says it seems like every day there's more work – especially in the last few weeks after George Floyd's death sparked a reckoning of systemic racism and police violence in the U.S.
"It's growing and it'll probably keep growing ... as long as we have issues such as police brutality – injustices anywhere – especially here in Austin," he said. "Most of these people are Austinites ... and they are very important people for us."
Williams' mural depicts a newspaper with headlines about the death of Mike Ramos, David Joseph, Larry Jackson, Daniel Rocha and others killed by Austin police. But it also looks to the past, entwining the history of Austin's first Black firefighters.
And above the fold, under the masthead "Peoples Advocate" – an allusion to a Black newspaper from the 19th century – is the namesake of the park, Dr. Everett H. Givens. Givens was a luminary in East Austin and one of the first Black dentists here. He was also a dogged advocate for Black Austinites at City Hall for decades.
Steven Brown, 36, is a member of the city's work group for the park. He says he's sick of hearing stories about violence surrounding the park and that since Davis' death, it has been linked with trouble.
A lot of people in the neighborhood are "tired of the stigma that's around the park," he said, and want to see "positive images of our leaders."
"These kind of people need to be recognized and also honored. Not only within the community, but by the city leaders, as well," he said. "I think they need to do a better job of making sure folks in our community see these types of images."
Givens is the reason Greenwood Avenue ends in a cul-de-sac. He pushed the city to build out bridges connecting East Austin across East Avenue (now I-35). He raised hell at county commissioner meetings, pleading with commissioners to hire Black deputies. And he demanded more equitable policing from the Austin Police Department.
"Of course there could be a great deal of improvement," he told then-Mayor Charles McAden in 1955. "But things could be a lot worse."
Givens sued the University of Texas Board of Regents in 1946, after he was denied admission to UT for a dental course. He argued if the university wouldn't admit him, then the board should commit to building a Black university that would. Voters had already approved money for a Black college under the UT banner in 1882, and the inaction on the part of the board was a violation of the Texas Constitution's Education Clause.
The case nearly went to the Texas Supreme Court, but was scuttled on a technicality. That effort prompted Texas lawmakers to establish Texas Southern University for Negroes in 1947, and Givens was appointed to the school's board of directors shortly before his death in 1962.
He was also a booster for then-NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall's campaign to dismantle the state's so-called white primary laws – which banned Black Texans from voting in Democratic primaries. Givens served as one of the local organizers for Marshall's legal defense fund.
A week after his death, the Austin City Council renamed Oak Springs Park in his honor.
In the past couple of years, Brown says, the city's handling of the park's eventual redevelopment hasn't been equitable. He hopes that changes, and he says he's willing to put in the work, if Austin is. He says East Austinites have too long had to use a metaphorical backdoor to get things done in their community.
"Austin has a tumultuous past with this community, and they've done good at trying to ... acknowledge the past," he said. "But when it comes down to the rubber meeting the road and there's actually policies and resources and funding, that's when we get a lot of the red tape."
Perhaps proof of that backdoor is Williams' mural itself. It's not official. Brown has been more or less sponsoring it, but it wasn't commissioned. It wasn't given a grand unveiling. It's a work in progress – work that Williams says he feels he was chosen to do.
"I feel blessed and honored to be able to be the one that God chose to do this. It could've been anybody, but God chose me to be here at this particular time. So I feel like it's a mission that I must accomplish," he said. "And I will not be defeated."
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