He was just a man. On the fine side of handsome, a gifted orator. He was a preacher and doubtless put on his preacher’s robe the same way other men did: left arm, right arm, up and over the shoulders. But he wasn’t just any preacher, and he became bigger than the years in which he lived. He became history.
And now the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. seems so often caught in the jaws of commercialism -- even if some of it is well-meaning -- records, commercials, those images everywhere. The minister leading an Alabama march. The minister being arm-twisted and arrested. The minister at the White House. A Cecil B. DeMille-like production, right there on the Mall, in 1963.
Sometimes it seems as if it all couldn’t possibly have happened, with those “Colored Only” signs now being bought as art pieces. As if the purchasers thought of that struggle as a hobby to pursue.
However, you can walk into the International Gallery at the Smithsonian’s S. Dillon Ripley Center and see an intriguing collection of visual arts celebrating King’s life and powers. “In the Spirit of Martin: The Living Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” which is being shown until July 27, has photographs, of course. (Time has shown the camera to have been such a powerful weapon in the movement.) But there are also rarely seen pieces of art -- paintings, drawings and lithographs, by artists known, unknown and should-be-known. You’ve heard of Andy Warhol and Gordon Parks and Romare Bearden, but maybe not Alex Powers and Phoebe Beasley and Travis Somerville.
A Harvey Dinnerstein print shows a group of Montgomery, Ala., marchers led by a woman in a hat. It is titled “Walking Together, Montgomery, 1956.” There are only nine people in the image, but there are shadows too, and the entire scene seems to have dropped from the clouds. The people seem both weightless and defiant.
A quietly powerful charcoal and pastel portrait of King by John Wilson shows King’s head tilted slightly to the left. The eyes are in shadow. The lion seems exhausted.
Someone by the name of Carl Iwasaki caught Linda Brown -- celebrated in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case that cracked legal segregation in America -- on her way to school. She is walking with her sister between idling railroad cars in Kansas. She has on an overcoat. Her lunch has been packed in a brown paper bag. A pair of common shoes are on her feet, the weight of the world on her shoulders. Out there in America, her America too, was King.
A Norman Rockwell oil on board seems rather unlike Rockwell: It is titled “Murder in Mississippi,” a powerful evocation of the slaying of three civil-rights workers in 1964. The black man has been shot and has slumped into the arms of one of the white men. The other man lies shot on the ground. In the Rockwell depiction, blood drips against a sepia background.
“That is so astray from the Saturday Evening Post,” says Anabeth Guthrie, a public affairs manager with the exhibition service. “It’s not what America thinks of Norman Rockwell.”
The exhibition has brought together works by artists from various backgrounds. Thornton Dial is a retired steelworker, born of a sharecropping family, who has produced a slave ship using found objects. An alabaster bust of King by Charles Arthur Wells has garnered a lot of attention, exhibition organizers say. Wells is the recipient of an American Academy in Rome fellowship in sculpture.
Where would the movement have been without the camera? A little film, a click and there was King on the front page of some newspaper, in the pages of some magazine. So that any farmer or bartender or teacher or hustler or brokenhearted teenager might realize just a bit more that he was coming, that he had a wind at his back. In a gelatin silver print in the exhibition, a little boy wears a three-button suit. His hands are in his pockets, his pose is stylish, as if he is impatient with the camera. Behind him, three men emerge from a doorway. A sign says “To the Colored Waiting Room.” King doesn’t have to be in these pictures to be in them.
It would take years before he became an icon or before he would land on Madison Avenue. Before he would become King -- the holiday, the movies, the documentaries, the speeches. So eye a mixed-media work in the exhibit called “The Only Begotten Son,” by Travis Somerville. It shows King, staring out. A $500 bill is in the upper right corner, turned upside down. There is a blotch of red (blood? a heart? a bullet hole?) near his face. And just above his head is the Nike emblem. The dreamer has been commercialized.
He was 39 when he died, a mere 26 when he was leading boycotts in dangerous Southern towns. And yet, he was just a man who never had much money and loved a good meal. He was on the fine side of kindness, say those who knew him.