City officials are moving to repaint Waco’s Martin Luther King Jr. mural as quickly as possible after vandalism was discovered earlier this week, city spokesman Larry Holze said.

Several red “X’s” were discovered on one side of the mural, near the Waco Suspension Bridge, and red paint covered portions of the civil rights leader’s face Tuesday morning. This is the first time the mural has been vandalized, and city officials don’t yet know the motivation behind it, Holze said.

“The first thought that came to my head was the word hateful,” Waco resident Nazry Mustakim said. “Vandalism is one thing but to specifically target the face of Martin Luther King is racist.”

Mustakim walks in the area twice a month with his wife and two children and saw the markings Monday evening, he said. He reported the markings on the city of Waco’s Twitter page and to a city council member through Facebook, he said.

Painted by artist Ira Watkins, the mural was dedicated by the city in 2005, according to a plaque placed with the mural. With several images depicting King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, it is meant to honor the “words and deeds that prove one person can make a difference,” the plaque states.

Whoever defaced the monument didn’t know the importance of the display, lifelong resident George Stewart said. Stewart walks his small dog Buddy near the mural at least once a week, he said. He was stunned to see the red markings and called the situation sad.

“I think the person who did that has no understanding what those words mean,” Stewart said.

But graffiti is not uncommon in many places around town, Holze said. The city won’t be able to power wash the mural because that could affect the etching. The city will try to bring in the same painter to redo the mural, he said.

McLennan County Commissioner Lester Gibson and businessman Donnie Wilkinson paid for the painting. Gibson said Tuesday he is surprised the mural hasn’t been vandalized before. Removing the graffiti will send a message that those kinds of acts won’t be tolerated, he said.

“I’m quite sure it can be removed,” Gibson said. “I drove by it the other day and I was smiling.”

While the motivation behind this incident remains unclear, graffiti related to racism has been common for a long time in the United States, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which focuses on ensuring civil rights for all and tracking hate crimes.

But incidents have increased since President Donald Trump was elected, according to the organization. His campaign often spurred followers to use more divisive speech toward others across the country, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported.

In the 10 days after Trump’s election, almost 900 reports of harassment and intimidation were made across the nation and often came in the form of graffiti or verbal harassment, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported. Texas came in third on the list of states with the most post-election hate incidents. Of the 867 incidents included in the group’s report, most happened in public spaces.

“I recently became a U.S. citizen on June 29. We didn’t say anything to our kids. We were too upset over the vandalism,” Mustakim said. “I was from Singapore and have been in the U.S. since 1992. This incident just tells me that our country is divided, and racism still exists. Our town may look friendly and welcoming, but hate lingers.”

The incident has been reported to the police department, but there are no suspects, Holze said.

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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