Colonel Richard Lieber, founding director of the Indiana Department of Conservation, led the commission that hired Benton to create the murals. Known as the father of the state's park system, he is pictured in the lower right corner planting a tree.
Since Lieber was initially opposed to the inclusion of the Klan imagery, the tree and ladder may also represent growth, harmony, and wisdom.
The Circus and the Church
The presence of the circus reflects the history of Peru, Indiana as the winter quarters for several famous circuses. While it may seem incongruous to have such a jolly scene next to the Klan rally, the seemingly generic church steeple behind the burning cross is actually St. Charles Borromeo Church—also located in Peru.
The church's Roman Catholic denomination may suggest the intense persecution of Catholic immigrants by the Klan during this period. Circus performers, too, were frequently seen as outsiders and foreigners counter to the Klan's white nationalist agenda.
The Ku Klux Klan and the Press
While the image of the Ku Klux Klan and a burning cross is shocking, Benton felt that history was a continuum, and including the Klan would provoke thought, conversation, and serve as a warning to future generations not to repeat the sins of the past. More specifically, the Klan's presence in this particular panel refers to the KKK's prominence in Indiana politics during the 1920s.
The reporter, photographer, and printer in the mural's foreground, likewise, indicate the Klan's loss of power. Soon after its peak in 1924, relentless coverage by newspapers and critics contributed to the arrest of the state's Grand Dragon on murder charges. The Klan leader's testimony brought down the governor and the mayor of Indianapolis.
The "Indianapolis Times" newspaper won a 1928 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its reporting on the story.
The Nurse and Children
Directly below the Klan is a larger central scene depicting a white nurse administering to a black and a white child. This deliberately staged scene of racial integration—unusual for the period's health care system—was intended as a "strong statement for tolerance and against bigotry" and a counter-balance to the Klan's presence. Likewise, the nurse's white uniform and starched pointed cap serves as a visual analogue to the Klansmen's robes.
The Ku Klux Klan is represented as one of the smallest figures in the mural, in the background, while progressive images of the press and the hospital scene are given far more space and prominence within the composition. Even the reporter and the photographer focus on the image of healing, rather than on the hurtful activity above it.
Fire Fighters and Airplanes
The fire brigade in the upper left corner, with its water hose mirroring the church steeple, not only signifies an improvement in fire protection, a major concern at the time, but may offer a subtle reference to putting out the flames of the Klan. The planes, too, suggest Benton's progressive belief in the power of new technology to overcome the evils of the past and to offer a promise for the future.