Facts You Should Know About Martin Luther King Jr.’s Life, Legacy and Art

Martin Luther King Jr, Lee Madrid, 2011

“I say to you today, my friends, though, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” – Martin Luther King Jr., 1963, an excerpt from his “I Have A Dream” speech at the March on Washington.

Best known for his dream and advocacy of peace, multiplicity, and equality, which transcends all kinds of people and nationalities — Martin Luther King Jr. and his vision continually resound in the lives and work of others who also dare to dream for a better country and world. Today — artworks, magazines, books and exhibitions, reveal the impact of Dr. King’s life-long fight for equality and freedom which we continue to feel and hear much further today, even over after 50 years after his untimely death.

On the 21st of January, we celebrate 51 years of Martin Luther King Jr.’s heroism and his quest for peaceful conflict resolutions, positive social interactions, equality for all people. With the Martin Luther King Jr. facts I’m presenting within this article, let us take a look back at his life and legacy, and moving forward, see how he is still continually influencing artists all over the world.

Who is MLK

Martin (yes, Martin!) Luther King Jr., (“Little Mike”, or MLK as he is famously known for) is a world-renowned hero, preacher, and the top icon of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. He was born on January 15, 1929 as Michael Luther King Jr., named after his father; however both of them had their names changed later on to “Martin”. He grew up in Atlanta, Georgia under the influence of the Baptist Church – both his father and grandfather being ministers. This religious and spiritual environment greatly influenced his chosen career path.

He grew up as a black man during some very dark times in our history; at that time, racial discrimination and separation of blacks and whites were still the norm. He attended segregated public schools, mingling only with black communities. Having very strong feelings for justice and defense, he initially wanted to be a lawyer. However, he went on to obtain a doctorate in Systematic Theology in 1955; there, he met Coretta Scott, who would later on become his wife and personal partner in social activism. King and Scott married and had four children – two daughters and two sons. King also became pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Atlanta before fully giving his life into the cause.

Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta Scott, 1953

Montgomery Bus Boycott

MLK did not have any ambition of leading any political movement. He wanted to serve the Lord, preach His word, and live peacefully in his lifetime. His rise to leadership started when an African-American woman named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery city bus on December 1, 1955. This was during the time when blacks and whites had segregations in the bus seats. The whites sat up front, and the blacks at the back. Mrs. Parks sat at the first row for the blacks, but when a white passenger came aboard and the area for the whites was already full, she refused to give up her seat. This led to her arrest, which sparked a year-long boycott of one of the biggest bus companies at the time.

Back then, MLK was a twenty-six-year-old new minister at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, that became the leaders’ meeting ground for the planned protest. At first, Martin was very hesitant in joining the movement because fighting did not sit well with his morals. After realizing that the movement’s cause was to fight for the right, he joined in and gave it his all.

Thousands of Afro-Americans (and even some whites!) joined in on the boycott. Martin Luther King became the face of this protest; by 1956 a bill passed, preventing the segregation of public buses for the whites and the blacks. This was a tremendous milestone for the civil rights movement. They saw the light of day, and this propelled Martin Luther King Jr. to continue with his advocacy.

His advocacy

From this point on up until the remaining years of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. led a life peaceful revolution, offering his cause to free the oppressed. He dedicated his life to serving the people who are in need, to fight for human rights, and to free people from slavery. Since his Montgomery Bus Boycott protest, he has led thousands of sit-ins, rallies, and suffered from the scorning of some of the biggest and most influential people in America. His home was bombed, his family received death threats, and he was jailed for over twenty times.

Throughout all this, Martin has kept his non-violent resolution and continually fought using only his words, his influence, and sparking the innate goodness in people to stand up for what is right. It is known that Martin Luther King Jr. took his concept of peaceful war from Mahatma Gandhi, who was able to impact the world using only his words, applying the principle of nonviolence on a large scale.  Both of them are real-life demonstrations that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.

MLK lived through very dark and difficult times in our history. In his lifetime he saw the peak of racism and abuse that followed black people wherever they went. In 1964, after moving to the forefront of the American civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to establish equal rights for African-Americans. On April 4, 1968, he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. The site is now home to the National Civil Rights Museum. He is a representation of peace, kindness and patience; and his legacy has triumphed over the whole world and will surely live on beyond him.

His legacy as seen in the art world

MLK found inspiration in poets and writers who had a great understanding about the natural needs and desires of humans. Our need for friendship, fellowship, forgiveness, and acceptance. He was inspired by the lives of the artists who pushed for inclusivity and a non-violent approach in living like John Donne, who is famous for his quote “No man is an island.”; and Leo Tolstoy, who wrote the book “War and Peace” — to name a few.

The artist Ai Weiwei once proclaimed that “art is a very important weapon to achieve human freedom.” This rings is especially true of the art during the civil rights movement.

Given his profound presence on the front lines in the fight for civil rights, it comes as no surprise that the life and death of MLK profoundly influenced works produced by artists and musicians of the 1960s. Let us take a look at some of the great art that was produced through the influence of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr.’s life and non-violent battle for the right.

Ernest Withers, 1968

 

“One of the most extraordinary and least understood aspects of Dr. Martin Luther King’s leadership was his incisive understanding of the power of visual images to alter public opinion,” says Maurice Berger. He believes the most simple images can deliver an emotional wallop, such as a poster by San Francisco graphic artists that declares in red letters, “I Am a Man.” It was inspired by placards carried by striking black sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968 – the strike that brought King to the city on the day of his assassination.

 

Hank Willis Thomas, 2009

 

Figurative Art

Martin Luther King Jr. also had an indelible effect on artist Jack Whitten. MLK’s powerful words find echoes in Whitten’s painting King’s Wish (Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream), 1968), 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.”

 

King’s Wish, Jack Whitten

Martin Luther King’s Garden, Jack Whitten

 

Robert Rauschenberg is also a widely-known artist who works with political topics. He was known to join in on the exhibitions that paid tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. shortly after he was assassinated.

 

Signs, Robert Rauschenberg

 

On the other hand, representing the civil rights movement – David Hammons created a found object installation art, symbolizing the oppression of black children in the school communities. Blacks were not allowed to enroll in the schools, and the administration went as far as preventing them and their parents from entering the Admission’s Office.

 

Admission’s Office, David Hammons

 

Upon first look at this installation art, one might not be able to correlate it right away to MLK. However, one of the most awe-inspiring obelisks in the world is the stupendously vast Washington Monument in Washington DC. King delivered his most famous speech in Washington in 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, to civil rights marchers assembled in the park below, with the white needle of the Washington obelisk right ahead of him as he stated “I have a dream …”. A broken obelisk was a potent emotional way to see America after King’s death: the promise denied, the hope shattered, the republic’s very rationality snapped in two.

 

Broken Obelisk, Barnett Newman

Street Art

MLK also found his way into the heart of street art. Graffiti artists all over the world paid tribute (and continually do so) by painting big murals of the icon and his words in their respective towns.

 

 

“When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind.” The text on this brightly colored mural is from King’s 1968 book Where Do We Go From Here. In this passage of the book, King appeals to “white liberals” to rally to the cause of civil rights rather than observe the movement in “indifference.”

 

MLK and Music

Martin Luther King was a big fan of music. In 1964, at the opening of Berlin Jazz Festival, King said of the jazz and blues:

“God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create—and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations.”

“Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph,” King said. “This is triumphant music.

Through his life and legacy, MLK not only inspired visual artists, but also passionate musicians. During these times, they were in a deeper search for meaning of life. When he died all of a sudden, the world was in a state of shock.

Artists came forward and paid tribute

Nina Simone“Why? (The King of Love is Dead)”

One of the most well-known odes to King is “Why? (The King of Love is Dead),” a song by Nina Simone. Simone and her band performed the song at the Westbury Music Festival three days after King was assassinated, after learning the song on the same day. While many odes to King pay homage to his life, the lyrics of “Why?”, written by the band’s bass player Gene Taylor, convey the pain that was still fresh in mourners’ hearts, and Simone’s voice did the song justice. “With his bible at his side, from his foes he did not hide, it’s hard to think this great man is dead,” she sang.

 

Stevie Wonder“Happy Birthday”

Black families regularly use Stevie Wonder‘s birthday song to celebrate with loved ones, but the musical icon created the song to push for the national celebration of MLK Day. “There ought to be a law against anyone who takes offense at a day in your celebration,” Stevie sang, “cause we all know in our minds that there ought to be a time that we can set aside to show just how much we love you.

 

U2“Pride In The Name Of Love”

If listeners have any doubt that Martin Luther King Jr. is the subject of “Pride (In the Name of Love),” Bono’s lyrics three minutes in drive the point home: “Early morning, April 4/Shot rings out in the Memphis sky/Free at last, they took your life/They could not take your pride.

 

Martin Luther King Speech At The Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C.

“I Still Have A Dream”

Every year, various institutions all over the world hold activities that pay tribute to the life of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. This 2019, as we remember him, let us grant his last wish which he shared in the last sermon he made in his church:

“If any of you are around when I meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. If you get somebody to talk, tell him not to talk too long. Tell him not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize. That isn’t important. I’d like someone to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others… I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that I did try in my life to clothe the naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.”

Happy MLK day! Rather than looking back at this day with sadness, let us remember Martin Luther King Jr. with a warm heart and a happy disposition, because the seeds he has planted has finally grown. With our collective effort, it will continuously grow until the world no longer knows a separation of black and white, and oppression and hunger and inequality no longer exist. In our small ways, let us continually fight for what is right.

 

As our parting question: Which MLK quote is your favorite? We can’t wait to read your replies in the comments below!

 


 

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Comments 4

  1. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther King: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

    Thank you for this very meaningful article, commemorating the life of one of the greatest men who ever lived!

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