My guess is that if Martin Luther King Jr. of 1968 were to return to 2018 America, he would be unsurprised by some of what he’d find: the staggering numbers of black men in jail; the recurrent killings of unarmed black youths by police; the emboldened presence of white supremacism. As a leader, he shaped a great humanitarian movement; as a thinker, he came to understand humanism’s deep flaws.
I wonder what he would think about how we engage with the history he helped create. A glance at contemporary art might give him some clues. In 1988, the African-American artist Glenn Ligon took as a subject a foundational civil rights emblem, the “I AM A MAN” strike placard, and did several things to it simultaneously: He replicated it, customized it, and critiqued it.
He turned it into a painting. In doing so, he paid homage to the mass-printed original; he gave its adamant words a new, queer dimension (Mr. Ligon is gay); and he turned an activist artifact, one that functioned as demand for economic equity, into an elite museum object, its text now done in glossy, light-catching enamel. (The painting is currently on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, in honor of the King anniversary.)
On multiple levels, Mr. Ligon made a piece of civil rights history his own, though attempts by other artists to do something similar have backfired. A recent example is the painting “Open Casket” by Dana Schutz, in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. The source of the image in this case was also a movement icon: a 1955 post mortem photograph of Emmett Till, a black teenager who, after being accused of whistling at a white woman, was murdered. At his mother’s insistence, Till’s tortured body was put on public view and photographed. The pictures, printed in Jet magazine, are credited with bringing many people into the civil rights movement, among them Dr. King.
At the Whitney, the painting sparked protests by some black artists who demanded its removal. At issue was that Ms. Schutz is white. Dr. King’s initial vision for the civil rights movement was one of racial harmony; blacks and whites working together to achieve equal lives for all. Possibly in those early days, Ms. Schutz’s painting might have passed as a gesture of solidarity.
But by 1968, it was clear, even to moderate blacks, that sharing power was not likely to happen. For the Whitney protesters, “Open Casket” was an emblem of the continuing exercise of white privilege that, in this case, allowed a white-controlled museum and a white artist to lay claim to a sensational image of black pain.
I suspect that the Dr. King of Room 306 would have understood the protesters’ point. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, given in 1964, when he was 35, he said that he could not, would not, permit himself to envision a world in which humanity was “so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.” But over the next four years, as Vietnam ground on, civil rights activists met violent ends, and race wars laid waste to American cities, daybreak must have seemed far-off.
To idealists of the 21st century, it may seem that on many social, economic and ethical fronts the country has come to what seems a futureless halt, just as the museum’s civil rights story does. But rather than exit the scene in weariness or frustration, we would do well to go back in time. If we stay alert, we can find instruction there.
The emphasis of the present-day protest movements is on inclusion: equal salaries, equal education, the right to marry. The goal is to get a share in the system. The civil rights movement began with that goal too, then realized that the system was the problem. Dr. King eventually came to this conviction, and in some ways it made the end of his life hard, complicated and unsettled.
Other people, however, held that view all along, and many of them were women. Sexism was rampant within the movement leadership. Women were expected to make coffee, make nice and stay home. Some, like Ella Baker, a tireless civil rights organizer, refused. True monuments have yet to be raised to enough of these women. One, Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977), was a monument herself.
A Mississippi Delta field worker, she was jailed and beaten when she tried to register to vote at 46, but went on to run for Congress. Her televised testimony, to determine whether she and her all-black Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party could be seated at the Democratic National Convention, is in the National Civil Rights Museum. Hamer’s unscripted account of her jail experience, with its blunt challenge — “I question America” — is overwhelming: dark and incandescent.
In May 1963, in Birmingham, Ala., Dr. King organized the most brilliant civil disobedience campaigns of his career, when he brought more than a thousand black schoolchildren into the streets to demonstrate against segregation. Hundreds were arrested; others were blasted with fire hoses. When people rebuked Dr. King for putting young people at risk, he said: “Don’t hold them back if they want to go to jail. For they are doing a job not only for themselves, but for all of America and for all mankind.” The world reacted, shamed the city and Birmingham took its first steps toward desegregation.
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