Text and Photographs by Leigh Hallingby
The Upper West Side is home to New York City’s most prominent sculpture honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Last year, 2023, marked 50 years that it has been standing at the corner of West 66th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Educational Campus, which houses six small public high schools.
Commissioned by the city’s Board of Education, the sculpture is by William Tarr (1925-2006), who also created “Gates of Hell” for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is a large cube, 30 feet on each side, made of self-weathering steel and built around the central intake unit for the schools’ heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system.
This most unusual and complicated sculpture does not include an image of Dr. King, but does have lots of text about him and his life. The work has been referred to as a biography of Dr. King. However, passersby consistently report that they do not understand the meaning of all the information on the artwork. As both a licensed New York City tour guide and someone who lives across the street from the monument, I decided to make it a professional and a personal project to demystify and understand it. I was helped greatly in this process by having lived through the civil rights movement in real time; having taken a civil rights tour in Georgia and Alabama in January 2020; reading a major new biography King: A Life, by Jonathan Eig (2023); contacting helpful staff at the school; and finding numerous useful sites on the Internet. This is what I discovered.
On the east side (pictured above) is the title of the work, Martin Luther King Jr. There are also initials of the members of the King family: Dr. King’s wife Coretta Scott King; the four King children, Yolanda Denise, Dexter, Martin Luther III, and Bernice Albertine; Dr. King’s paternal grandparents, James and Delia; his parents, Martin Luther Sr. and Alberta Williams; and his siblings, Christine and Alfred Daniel. Also included on this side are Dr. King’s birth and death dates: 1929–1968. And there is a quote, as there is on each side, from Dr. King: “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty I’m free at last.” Dr. King delivered these immortal words on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, as part of his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Moving clockwise, the south side comes next. It focuses on Dr. King’s education and his work in the civil rights movement. On the lower left are the initials of the schools that Dr. King attended: Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta; Morehouse College in Atlanta; Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, PA; and Boston University. There are lower case initials of the people who were his most important teachers, professors, and friends at these institutions.
In the middle of this side, we see the initials SCLC for Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded in 1957 in Atlanta. MIA is the Montgomery Improvement Association, which was instrumental in guiding the Montgomery bus boycott from 1955-56. This foundational event in the civil rights movement catapulted Dr. King into the national spotlight. RDA is Ralph David Abernathy, probably Dr. King’s closest friend and mentor. The date of December 10, 1964 in the upper left corner is when Dr. King was presented with the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, for his work in the civil rights movement. On the upper right-hand side is a quotation from Dr. King’s Nobel acceptance speech: “I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction.”
The west side focuses on Dr. King’s death. The date in the upper left corner, 4-4-68, represents the assassination of Dr. King in Memphis, TN. The initials of Dr. King’s wife and children are repeated here, probably because these were the people most likely to carry on his legacy. The quotation in the middle at the bottom reads: “I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.” Dr. King spoke those words at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, on February 4, 1968, as part of his last sermon there, exactly two months before his death. At his widow’s request, a recording of this sermon was played at the funeral.
Finally, there is the most complicated side, the north side of the memorial. It requires the most decoding, other than the words “We Shall Overcome,” the song that became the anthem of the civil rights movement. In the upper left are 34 sets of initials, many of them important colleagues of Dr. King. For instance, the list includes A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, the men who planned the 1963 March on Washington. Also, Ella Baker who worked, mostly behind the scenes, mentoring many emerging activists. One of the most interesting people on this list is Mahatma Gandhi, whose use of non-violent civil rights protest had a huge influence on Dr. King.
On the right side are 17 important dates in Dr. King’s life. Included are his birth and marriage dates, the births of his four children, and important dates in the civil rights movement. The number 44 at the bottom of the list was actually the most difficult piece of information on the monument to decode, because it does not look like the other dates. It refers to Dr. King’s death date, as April 4 can be abbreviated 4-4. But why is it written like this? I finally realized that 44 actually is also the age that Dr. King would have been when this monument was erected in 1973. Interestingly, over the 50 years since this monument was installed, 44 has taken on yet another meaning related to civil rights, as Barack Obama was the 44th president of the United States
Finally on the north side are these words from Dr. King: “Let us be dissatisfied until every man can have food and material necessities for his body, culture and education for his mind, and human dignity for his spirit.” These were part of a speech Dr. King delivered at Carnegie Hall in New York City, on February 23, 1968, about six weeks before he died, to honor the 100th anniversary of the birth of W. E. B. Du Bois, the American sociologist and civil rights activist.
So, ultimately, what are we to make of this sculpture? Can the Martin Luther King memorial, which is so challenging to decipher and which passersby consistently say does not engage them, be considered successful? Or is it best viewed as a truly inventive, but perhaps unsuccessful, artistic experiment in honoring a great American? Or something else? I would love to hear what you think in the comments. You can also email me at email@example.com.
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