One of the ways human beings come to know their value to one another is by remembering and celebrating us when we are gone. Certainly, the way we hold Martin Luther King, Jr., the prominent civil rights activist and leader, in our collective memory is indicative of the key role he played in the civil rights movement. How we commemorate it is also indicative of our own personal moral compass, our respect for the idea that all humans are free, our respect for personal sacrifice for a greater cause, our love and care for blacks. But when we honor King publicly, as many in the artistic circle did on what would have been his 93rd birthday, I have found that friends, acquaintances and colleagues use those moments to to remember, honor and inspire King. of his life. At the same time, I found that art institutions used his date of birth quite differently.
Reading through my various social media feeds on Monday, I found posts used to reminisce about King in charming ways. For example, on Facebook, Message from Daoud Bey consists of an Associated Press black-and-white photograph of King walking with a group of children, starring Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy. Bey writes, “Thank you for teaching us not to be afraid and to walk with our heads held high, proud and rebellious”, a beautiful and touching tribute that stays with me for hours. On Twitter, artistic journalist Mary Gregory showed a little of Faith Ringgold’s mosaic mural installed in a Harlem train station that features both King and Malcolm X, “Malcolm X and Martin Luther King fly over Theresa’s Hotel” (1996), with the quote: “Never lose the infinite hope”. And on Instagram, artist Rico Gaston showed an image of King with his wife Coretta and one of his young children in his arms. The image has no caption and is stylized in the same way Gaston’s work tends to be with beams of color emanating from a center or set of figures. Here, Dr. King and his family seem like eternally shining beacons whose light can animate us.
Some posts sought to contextualize King as a father, husband, friend and mentor. On Facebook, Nona Faustine posted several images of King and his wife happily with themselves or in the company of friends. On Twitter, I saw a beautiful image posted by a social justice reporter at the Huffington Post, Philip Jackson, of King with the future mayor of Washington, D.C., Marion Barry. The photograph made Barry a little more human to me, despite his despicable behavior in public office. the reverend Jesse Jackson posted a photo of himself as a young man with King, looking in the direction King is pointing. He captioned it: “Dr. King’s influence on me was total. My seminary work, my work with him, my journey with him. He taught me what priorities should be.
I am also actor and TV host Jean Fugelsang who says, “I saw Coretta Scott King speak at New York University when I was 18 and I’ll never forget her.” He also retweeted Bernice King, who reminds us that Dr. King’s legacy was partly cemented by his wife’s work after his murder. She writes: “As you honor my father today, remember and honor my mother as well. She was the architect of the King Legacy and the founder of @TheKingCenter, which she founded two months after Dad’s assassination. Without #CorettaScottKing, there would be no #MLKDay.
The most incisive uses of these keepsakes were messages that used King’s words and images to indicate the work that needs to be done at this time. On Facebook, the photographer JD Urban wrote simply, “May the MLK quote you post today align with the words and actions you choose over the next 364 days.” Dr Sarah Bond, a classics scholar and historian who contributes to Hyperallergic, took to Twitter to remind readers that King’s politics weren’t just about fighting segregation; he also defended the working class. She refers an article by Lee Saunders in which Saunders quotes King: “We must be careful not to be fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work’. … Its purpose is to destroy unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved everyone’s wages and working conditions. This is precisely what needs to be said at this time to all exploitative employers like Amazon, Starbucks and the like. On Twitter, Mehdi Hasan, journalist and tenacious questioner of American politics, has forged his own law (Mehdi’s Law): “As a discussion of racism lengthens, the likelihood of a Republican quoting a line out of context of MLK approximates one. ” Of course, it took me less than five minutes to come across a rhetorically empty tweet from Rand Paul asking his audience, “Let us commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King by uniting the two Americas into one: an America that understands justice for one and justice for all” – which conveniently ignores the fact that he and all of his colleagues of the GOP are blocking critical legislation that would ensure nonpartisan manipulation of the vote.
The artist Ayana Evans, writing on Facebook, tells us what’s at stake, using his commemoration of King to make an urgent appeal: “Today I urge everyone to remember the words he spoke on this very issue. Read the transcript of his 1957 speech, “Give Us the Ballot,”… [and] Martin Luther King Jr.’s family called for ‘no celebration’ of MLK Day on Monday without action on voting rights legislation!” I agree there is no cause for celebration as a wave of laws that seek to limit people’s ability to vote freely is sweeping the country and federal legislation that seeks to control that wave appears to be dying in the Senate.
Contrary to those sentiments, feeds from major New York museums that I follow approached King’s birthday by taking the opportunity to create “links” that served to inform visitors about their current exhibits. For example, The The Metropolitan Museum of Art tweeted an image of a poster containing an adage frequently associated with King and the wider civil rights movement: “Injustice everywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. In the threaded tweet, the museum informed me: “Today is the last day to see this artwork and its associated posters exhibited in Selections from the Department of Drawings and Prints: Revolution, Resistance and Activism», also reminding me that the exhibition is also available online. The Museum of Modern Art employs a similar strategy, albeit carried out with a little more tact. On their Twitter account they posted a 58 second video with archival footage of King’s call for a poor people’s campaign. The video complements the text of the threaded tweets which discuss the creation of “Resurrection City” at the National Mall in May 1968. I am told that the ad hoc tents and wooden structures created their accommodation for approximately 3,000 people during the six-week protest. And then there is the kicker: “Resurrection City played an influential role in Adam Pendleton’s larger investigation of alternative structures and social formations. See “Notes on Resurrection City” in [current exhibition] Adam Pendleton: Who’s the Queen?“Essentially, these museums are using King’s birthday to plug in their own exhibits.
On the other hand, the Whitney Museum of American Art released a clip of a conversation between former Congressman John Lewis and photographer and filmmaker Danny Lyon that took place at the museum in 2016. In the short video, Lewis tells the story of reaching out to King for help to attend a college which at the time only admitted white students. As Lewis tells it, Dr. King answered him with a round-trip Greyhound bus ticket, asking Lewis to come to Montgomery, Alabama, to meet him in person. It’s an inspiring recital that places King in the context of his work with future civil rights activists and shows how the flame passes from torch to torch, all without overtly instrumentalizing his memory.
The Brooklyn Museum has managed to somewhat divide the difference between these two approaches into retweet The arts journal who said, “Museums across the United States have held special virtual events (with some in-person exceptions) commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Here’s how six cultural institutions are marking it…” while listing the Brooklyn Museum along with other institutions. The museum held a two-part event they called a “Virtual Teacher Workshop: MLK Day of Action,” which promised to concretely demonstrate how to link artistic creation and the practice of social justice. So it seems that, more than other art institutions in the city that I follow, the Brooklyn Museum properly commemorated King by modeling the activism that made him the leader he was.
Other institutions have avoided the topic altogether: The Twitter feeds of the New Museum, the Frick Collection and the Morgan Library and Museum do not mention any dates.
I thought of King as I sat down with all of these images, anecdotes, feelings, and cautionary tales, and they all got me thinking about the idea of a legacy. I wonder how I will be remembered, and I wonder how these cultural institutions will also be viewed, when years from now historians will ponder how we all behaved when the sun began to set on this empire.