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Martin Luther King in the Collection


Martin Luther King Jr. Day gives us an opportunity to celebrate and consider Dr. King, his impact on the course of history, and the context for his life's work, and the aftermath of his assassination. Art reflects life, as we all know, and three photographs in the Art Institute's collection provide a look at the triumph and pain found in the story of Dr. King.

Tony Spina, a photojournalist for the Detroit Free Press, photographed Dr. King on June 23, 1963. This was the date of the Detroit Walk to Freedom, a large civil rights march that took place just a few months before the more well-known March on Washington. (In fact, King delivered an early version of his I Have a Dream speech in Detroit.) We see Dr. King waving to the crowd (estimated at 125,000) and walking alongside civic and state leaders; the image is a strong reminder of his ability to draw very visible support from politicians and citizens alike, and the boisterous energy of the Civil Rights Movement of the early 60's.

On April 4, 1968, as news of the assassination of Dr. King spread, cities around the country erupted in violent riots. Jack Jaffe, a Chicago photographer known for documenting the Civil Rights Movement, captured this somber image in Gary, Indiana. Jaffe's photograph depicts a line of figures silhouetted by flames and dwarfed by a dark, looming sky—a moment of profound sadness amongst the violence.

Finally, we have Terri Garland's Martin Luther King Day, Pulaski, Tennessee, a photograph with a darkly ironic title. The image of a smirking bigot in a tasteless t-shirt reminds us that perhaps the only thing worse than a racist is a racist who thinks he's funny. More importantly, it reminds us why we have a holiday in commemoration of the life and spirit of Dr. King: we are all responsible for carrying on his work.

Tony Spina. Martin Luther King in Detroit, June 23, 1963, printed by June 24, 1988. Ernest N. Kahn Photography Fund.