The enduring power of Martin Luther King
On Martin Luther King Day, we look at how Dr King’s work is remembered and celebrated in art, architecture and text
Martin Luther King advanced the cause of civil rights immeasurably in the United States during the mid-twentieth century, but his legacy isn’t limited to that time, that place, and that movement. On Martin Luther King Day we reflect on Dr King’s near-immortal legacy.
In Memory Of, our book on contemporary memorials, contains a description of a work in Latin America which draws on the clergyman’s work. “Located next to Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park, on land that previously belonged to Mexico’s Ministry of Defense—and funded with money seized from cartels—the Memorial to the Victims of Violence pays tribute to the tens of thousands of lives lost in the country’s drug war.”
In keeping with other works in this book, the Memorial to the Victims of Violence is largely abstract, allowing mourners to find their own way towards grieving. “The memorial comprises seventy steel walls, each nearly 40 feet (12 meters) tall and arranged vertically and horizontally among a forest,” Bailey writes. “Its main space features a 13,000-square-foot (1,200-square-meter) reflecting pool, part of which, covered in bar grating, visitors can walk across.”
However, there are a few words of consolation and moral guidance. “Stenciled into many of the slabs are quotes, selected by the architects, on violence, memory, love, and other related subjects, from figures such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., novelist Carlos Fuentes, and poet Octavio Paz.” In keeping with the demoractic nature of contemporary memorial making, “the memorial invites visitors to interact with it by allowing them to leave messages on the steel walls in chalk.”
Meanwhile, our recent book, You Had Better Make Some Noise reproduces a good few of MLK's words. A collection of quotations by visionaries who have been catalysts for change – through the ages and across the globe – the book features the words of Martin Luther King, as well as quotations from his wife, Coretta Scott King, other civil rights leaders, such as John Lewis, and other writers, thinkers and activists including Ai Weiwei, Nelson Mandela and Hannah Arendt. The pages in this book are detachable, enabling readers to tear them out, stick them on a wall, mount them on a placard, or otherwise liberate these motive texts from the binding.
Finally, for a wordless meditation on King’s place and legacy, take a look at our Theaster Gates book. The Chicago artist finds much of the material in his works from abandoned buildings in his urban environment. Gates’ 2012 piece, A Maimed King, was taken from a community school in Chicago.
The work consists of an orange swivel chair, the sort you might find in any office, which sits strangely out of context in an art gallery.
Sit in it and before you hangs a photo of an African-American male, framed in a metal-edge box with sliding glass doors, the sort used in public buildings to display notices. Despite being heavily crumpled, the photo is unmistakably of Martin Luther King.This was in just the condition that Gates found it, as is the glass box and chair.
The work is a take on the Readymade art of early 20th century Marcel Duchamp, who in placing found objects such as urinals and shovels in galleries sought to collapse the arbitrary walls between the stuff of art and the stuff of life. The “maiming” referred to is both the state of the photograph and the assassin's bullet that killed the leader.
By reclaiming the scrunched up photograph in its display box, Gates has been able to “reattribute value to what has been deemed worthless by the hegemony of the social, political and economic powers”.
For more on this powerful work, take a look at our Theaster Gates book; for more moving words, get You Had Better Make Some Noise; and for more on that memorial, get In Memory Of.