John Petts was an artist responsible for one of the most moving works of stained glass commemorating a shocking event in American history that also demonstrated the generosity of the people of Wales.
Petts was born in London in 1914, but, for the most part, he is remembered as a Welsh artist since he and his wife, set-up the Caseg Press in Snowdonia in 1937 and lived and worked in Abergavenny.
He was a conscientious objector during the Second World War and what caused him to produce his most celebrated work began in 1963. The civil rights movement was gaining momentum and tension grew that resulted in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls.
This marked a turning point in the civil right movement and ensured the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, although justice for the victims took much longer, the prosecution of the four suspects stretching out over four decades.
At his home in Llansteffan, Petts said: ‘The news on the radio left me sick at heart. As a father, I was horrified by the death of the children; as an artist-craftsman, hearing that the stained-glass windows of the church had been destroyed, I was appalled, and I thought to myself what can we do about this? Could not some of us join together in a positive gesture of Christian sympathy in the face of destructive evil, and, as a token, put back at least one of those windows.’
Petts contacted the Western Mail newspaper and the following day the front page headline read: ‘Alabama: Chance for Wales to Show the Way’, launching a call for donations so that Petts could create his stained glass replacement.
It was agreed that individual donations would not exceed half a crown: ‘We don’t want some rich man paying for the whole window. We want it to be given by the people of Wales.’ The £500 target was reached within days and the fund closed at £900.
Petts’ work on the window was his contribution to this show of solidarity, the money raised by public subscription being used for the cost of materials and for transporting it across the Atlantic.
He traveled to Alabama to discuss possible designs: ‘Eventually one idea grew in strength,’ he said, ‘the figure of a negro, yet of Christ too, a suffering figure in a crucified gesture, with one hand flung wide in protest, the other in acceptance, remembering the sight of a negro figure twisting under the assault of fire-hoses, his arms up-flung. The jets of water transfixing the figure became the bar of a Cross symbolising all violence.’
The window was dedicated at a service held at the church in June 1965 and pastor John Cross said that: ‘It might serve as a constant reminder that there are persons in the world whose hearts are filled with love and brotherly kindness.’
The designs for the window were donated to the National Library of Wales in 1970 and Petts died in 1991.