For those of us who didn’t live in the time that the moral giant Martin Luther King, Jr., walked the earth, we have only the pictures—the young, fiery preacher, the protest leader sitting in a Birmingham jail, the seas of people listening to the “I Have a Dream” speech, and, finally, the flock of arms and hands rising towards the source of the assassin’s bullet that left him in a pool of his own blood. On this day honoring Dr. King’s memory, I offer a different image—John Woodrow Wilson’s 1981 mammoth charcoal portrait, Martin Luther King, Jr. (pictured).
I remember seeing the portrait at the Philadelphia Museum of Art during the opening of their new Perelman Building. Works that had languished in storage for too long saw the light of day again thanks to the new space. Wilson’s portrait dominated a wall in the new section devoted to works on paper. You couldn’t miss it, standing there so big and so dark. For some reason, my mind conjured up memories of seeing the colossal sculpted head of the Roman emperor Constantine, probably just on sheer comparison of scale. Yet, while Constantine ruled by military force, Dr. King ruled by moral force. Violence was one tactic he would never resort to. Constantine led armies under him. Dr. King led armies beside him, often linking with them arm in arm as they marched against the hardened hearts of their oppressors. Constantine conquered from without. Dr. King conquered from within, softening the hearts of those who allowed bitterness and racism to blind them to the common humanity we all share beneath the trivial differences of skin color.
But while Constantine looks you almost in the eye and, just slightly, above and past you, Wilson’s portrait of Dr. King looks down, almost broodingly. Perhaps Wilson had Aaron Shikler’s iconic posthumous portrait of President John F. Kennedy in mind. Both figures, linked forever by their tragic ends, which bookend the decade of the 1960s, look down as if they cannot bear to watch a future that they are unable to help. Towards the end of his life, Dr. King expanded beyond campaigning for civil rights for African Americans to civil rights for all people. Racial inequality became another component of the economic, social, and political inequality that spanned the globe. Speaking out against the Vietnam war waged for years became just as important as speaking out against the racial war waged for centuries. In 2002, Wilson etched another portrait of Dr. King that seems small and almost weary, as if he had lived to witness the events of the last four decades but was still unable to change them. I much prefer the 1981 portrait, so big, so dark, so brooding, and yet so expansive, as if his gaze fell on all of us equally, calling us to carry on his work in his name, in our children’s names, and, most of all, in the name of love.
[Many thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for providing me with the image of John Woodrow Wilson’s 1981 charcoal portrait Martin Luther King, Jr. Art © John Wilson/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.]