April 4 marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. To commemorate this day, admission is free to Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. In honor of King, Museum Educator Raven Cook reflects on his impact, as well as related artworks in the exhibition.
Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m lone
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home (lead me home)
“Take My Hand, Precious Lord” by Thomas A. Dorsey
King’s favorite gospel song, sung by Mahalia Jackson at his funeral in 1968.
The exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power presents artworks from predominately African American artists created between 1963-1983. Every day I have the privilege of taking students into this space and teaching them about the art. However, I do not introduce them only to these remarkable works; I also use the opportunity to have a rich dialogue on the Afro-American experience in America.
When I start talking about the historical context of the exhibition, I always ask how many of the students have heard of the Civil Rights Movement. A few hands are raised, and faces tense up with eyes darting back and forth to see who else may have bravely raised their hand. When I ask how many have heard of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., there is rarely a student who doesn’t know this name. Then I ask, “What did Dr. King do?” Fewer hands go up, but there is always one or two that will say, “I Have a Dream.” The groundwork continues as I lead students to the video from 1963 of Dr. King presenting the “I Have a Dream” speech on the small television screen in the exhibition entrance. As I stand there watching students, I often wonder: “They hear this speech, and they know who this person is, but do they consider that this man was someone’s husband, friend, brother, father, pastor, and teacher, and that he was, in a moment, ripped away from all those he loved and those who loved him. Do they really know the man?”
While today many speak of Dr. King with high admiration and great respect, in his own day, many did not embrace his ideas. Dr. King held up a mirror to America and proclaimed that we, as a nation, can be better. For black Americans, this rhetoric came with a multitude of concerns, primarily centered on the ways to create that change and to secure equal opportunity.
Educators often present Dr. King’s best known works: “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and “I Have a Dream.” Rarely discussed in depth are his later speeches and writings, including his “Beyond Vietnam” speech from 1967 where Dr. King states:
“Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message—of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”
In this speech, Dr. King argued that the work he would soon give his life to went far beyond issues of race, but to issues that pertained to all humanity. He boldly stood toe-to-toe against injustice and said, “No more.”
On April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis Tennessee. America felt it, the world felt it, and artists felt it as well. In the 12 rooms of the Soul of a Nation exhibition, there is a rich and heavy, yet beautiful energy that helps us step into a different time and feel expressions from each artist as they explore their own evolving voice. There are a few works where audiences can consider Dr. King’s legacy in artistic imagery.
The works ache with the loss of Dr. King, but they also project beauty in the reflections. The first room of the exhibition considers the collective Spiral. Artists like Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, and Reginald Gammon anchor the exhibition with one critical question: “Is there a Negro image?” In their powerful Black and White exhibition in 1965, the artists use these two colors with diverse techniques to provide consideration for the times in which they live. This exhibition contextually starts as Dr. King’s words linger in the air from the summer of 1963 when he offered his famous “I Have a Dream.” These 15 artists came together and intentionally began to question art and identity after feeling the weight of his words.
The exhibition moves into another room titled “Figuring Black Power” with a dramatic piece from Archibald Motely titled The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who is Without Sin Shall Cast the First Stone; Forgiven Them Father For They Know Not What They Do, in which Dr. King’s face is centered between Presidents John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln. The symbolism and color give Motley’s piece an eerie feel and leave audiences apprehensive yet drawn to the piece. Engaging with the work has provided conversations about familiar symbols of today and has also challenged audiences to consider how, while times have changed, certain obstacles have yet to be overcome.
Sam Gilliam’s April 4 is another piece of powerful imagery. In a section titled “East Coast Abstraction,” Gilliam’s large abstract work is filled with rich purples and splashes of deep reds that interrupt our conversation with majesty in the diverse purples. Reminding us that our relationship with Dr. King (whose very name is associated with royalty, hence the use of the color purple) is interrupted by his assassination which is symbolized by the splashes of red on the canvas.
Finally, John Outterbridge’s About Martin in the section “Los Angeles Assemblage,” charges audiences to consider King not as this towering, God-like “larger-than-life” figure, but as a normal man who lived and loved and was loved in return. A small picture of Coretta Scott King taken during the funeral services of Dr. King, with the suit at center, the small cupboard that reminds you of an open casket, leaves audiences with this sense of loss. Considering that these works were created not long after his assassination, the works that focus on Dr. King in the exhibition are weighted with emotion.
So I return to the question, “Is there a Black art?” That answer is for the public to determine for themselves. As I conclude my tours, I often remind students that our ability to decide questions like this is a human right, and one that many people fought and died for in seeking to make sure these rights are available and accessible to all people. Dr. King was one of those who secured this opportunity for us, and his love for all people is a reminder to me that I can continue that same work, and continue to fulfill his Dream, as I educate students at the museum, and to others in the community.