It took fifteen years from the death of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to create the federal holiday of Martin Luther King Day. First introduced as legislation by Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) in 1968 following Dr. King’s assassination, Martin Luther King Day would not be adopted by all 50 states, in some form or another, for a staggering 25 years. Many states rejected the holiday; others chose to acknowledge the entire Civil Rights Movement rather than celebrating one individual every third Monday in January, near Dr. King’s birthday on January 15. Not only does this make clear the effectiveness of Congress (or lack thereof), but it also gives us a sense of the difficulty of progress in a post-Civil Rights era America—a notion that is particularly salient today. At stake was nothing more than celebrating, on a national level, the valiant efforts and legacy of an African American leader.
Given his profound presence on the front lines in the fight for civil rights, the life and death of Martin Luther King, Jr. profoundly influenced works produced by artists of the 1960s. The Blanton’s upcoming presentation of Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties (on view February 15-May 10) organized by the Brooklyn Museum, attests to King’s impact on art of the 1960s and beyond. Dr. King had an indelible effect on artist Jack Whitten (b. 1939, Bessemer, AL), who met the reverend in 1957 at a local church in Montgomery, Alabama in the wake of the Montgomery bus boycott. Whitten, who has produced several works dedicated to Dr. King, was later present at the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom, and for Dr. King’s famed, impromptu “I have a dream” speech in Washington in 1963. Dr. King’s powerful words find echoes in Whitten’s painting King’s Wish (Martin Luther’s Dream), 1968 (on view in Witness), in which abstracted faces appear and disappear among strokes of intense, varying hues. Each quickly rendered face in the work ceases to be defined by any one color, but rather “by the content of their character.”[i]
Artist Joe Overstreet (b. 1933, Conehatta, MS), whose vast breadth of work is both experimental and socio-political in nature, spent time in Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan’s East Village the morning after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. The park’s Temperance Fountain and its stone canopy, pillars, and circular foundation became the inspiration for Justice, Faith, Hope and Peace, 1968, a large-scale oil on shaped canvas. The dynamism of form in the painting, which broke from the tradition of simple, four-sided pictures, along with its colors and title, suggest a bright air of possibility in the wake of such a devastating loss, when justice faith, and hope seemed all but lost in the fight for civil rights.
Peace, however, was an aspiration and a wish, and one that remains elusive today as well in the aftermath of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and throughout the United States. It is easy to forget when standing in front of hopeful, colorful paintings like these that they were produced in the face of hatred, brutal violence, discrimination, and death. Dr. King’s assassination followed centuries of slavery, lynchings, legalized segregation, social and political impoverishment, and countless generations of institutionalized racism and discrimination.
Washington, D.C. artist Sam Gilliam understood this well. Gilliam (b. 1933, Tupelo, MS), an abstract painter associated with the Washington Color School that formed in D.C. in the late 1950s, adopted color as the main subject of his work. In moving away from figurative imagery, Gilliam insisted the viewer focus on the power of color. In Red April, 1970, stains of hot pink acrylic and splattered skeins of red paint—marks typical of Gilliam and Color Field painting—gain symbolic resonance when viewed in light of this work’s title, which references Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968. Gilliam witnessed the riots that followed King’s assassination from his studio on U Street in D.C., and subsequently embarked on a series of works inspired by the civil rights leader.
Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement also had a pronounced effect on countless individuals who were not of color. American artists like Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) and Mark di Suvero (b. 1933, Shanghai, China), whose brother Hank worked as a civil rights lawyer, frequently donated works to the benefit exhibitions of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). Jim Dine (b. 1935, Cincinnati, OH), who also gifted benefit works to CORE, attached a porcelain sink to a canvas in Black Bathroom #2, 1962, possibly signaling the messy state of affairs in the segregated South. King also had a particularly lasting effect on May Stevens, (b. 1924, Quincy, MA) a white painter from Massachusetts who also credits her passion for the Civil Rights Movement to her friendship with artist Charles White (1918 – 1979). In 1963, the same year as King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, Stevens created Honor Roll, an oil painting that honors by name the seven young African American students who were among the first to attempt to integrate schools in the American South. Honor Roll imparts academic commendation of a mournful sort, recognizing African American men and women who faced tremendous hardship, danger, and often death, in the pursuit of the right to an education.
“We went to Washington every year to protest,” Stevens says of her time during the Civil Rights Movement. “… I heard Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his ‘I have a dream’ speech in August 1963. We had taken off our shoes and had put our feet in the reflecting pool on the mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial on that hot summer day…The silence of thousands of people listening was terribly moving. At that moment we were all envisioning the kind of future that he envisioned, where all children would be equal. His conviction, his vision, was like manna to starving souls.”[ii]
Artworks like these reveal the impact of Dr. King’s arduous fight for equality, which continues to be felt much further than the limits of the legislation it galvanized.
Blanton Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
The works described here will each be featured in the forthcoming exhibition, “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” opening at the Blanton Museum of February 15. For more information, visit www.blantonmuseum.org.
[i] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. uttered these famous words in his March on Washington speech in 1963. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
[ii] Patricia Hills, “May Stevens: In Conversation,” in May Stevens. (San Francisco, Pomegranate, 2005): 29