Camilo José Vergara is a photographer and the author of numerous books, most recently, Detroit Is No Dry Bones: The Eternal City of the Industrial Age (University of Michigan Press, 2016). His most recent writing on Detroit can be found at PublicBooks.org. More of his work can be found at camilojosevergara.com.
Portraits of the slain civil rights leader captured over time give us a view of history from neighborhoods that often go unrecorded.
Half a century after his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. remains a popular subject of street art in America’s black and low-income urban neighborhoods. Since the 1970s I have documented hand-painted images of the civil rights leader in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Detroit, among other places. I did not originally set out to document these murals and signs; rather, I just happened to keep finding them and photographing them until a collection formed.
My documentation of ghetto neighborhoods is based on re-photography. I ask myself what will happen to a building, to a mural, to an empty lot. Curiosity compels me to return to these sites. A single photograph of mine is a question posed in a world where things fade, are replaced, or destroyed. Sequences, notes, and recollections grow into stories.
Portraits of Dr. King appear on the facades of liquor stores, storefront churches, barbershops, and fast food restaurants. His famous pronouncement, “I have a dream,” often accompanies the image on these walls. He is represented in many ways—as a statesman, visionary, hero, and martyr. Some paintings show him looking proud and thoughtful, with his hand under his chin. While in others, arms outstretched, he projects friendliness and compassion. In group portraits he often takes center stage and is the largest of those depicted.
The sign painters and amateur artists who create these portraits use well-known photographs—such as the one of him as a prisoner seen through the bars of a Birmingham jail—on which to model their subject. However, local artists don’t always produce an accurate likeness. It is not uncommon for Dr. King to look Latino, Native American, or even Asian. In Detroit, among the ruins of what once was the city’s Chinatown, I found a memorial mural to Vincent Chin, a Chinese American autoworker who was the victim of a racially-motivated murder in 1982. In it, Dr. King appears with Asian facial features. On a viaduct on Chicago’s South Side, I discovered a mural by the African American artist B. Walker that portrayed the him as a crucified saint. Influenced by the Mexican muralist tradition, Walker painted a brown Dr. King with Mexican Indian features.
In black neighborhoods, these portraits are often accompanied by such iconic figures as Malcolm X, represented as the embodiment of righteous anger, or other black leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks. And while Dr. King continues to be a popular subject, portraits of Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela have been steadily declining. Until a decade ago in segregated neighborhoods, these leaders had a presence that matched that of Dr. King. Depictions of the slain civil rights leader with white Americans are extremely rare and are mostly limited to John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Abraham Lincoln.
Dr. King was integrated into Latino street art in the early 1990s as Mexican and Central American immigrants started to move in large numbers to the black neighborhoods of South Los Angeles. Spanish-speaking shopkeepers eager to attract black customers decorated their stores with images of the Civil Rights leader accompanied by the Virgin of Guadalupe and Christ. These portraits of Dr. King were unlike anything I had seen before. Sign painters, unable to paint an African American, made the Civil Rights leader look like a brown Tolteca Indian, or portrayed him against a rural background as if he had been a Mexican farmer; Pancho Villa, Benito Juarez, Cesar Chavez, and the Virgin of Guadalupe became his new companions. More recently, Frida Kahlo has appeared on such murals, the first woman besides the Virgin to join the Latino pantheon.
Barack Obama has been painted alongside King since first being elected as president in 2008. A local Detroit resident once explained the pairing to me, saying: “Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther King could walk. Martin Luther King walked so Obama could run. Obama ran so we can all fly.” I have also found murals on a South Side of Chicago viaduct and in a South Los Angeles butcher shop in which Dr. King had been replaced by Obama.
Murals and street portraits of Dr. King in these neighborhoods are ephemeral. Paint fades, businesses change hands, and demographics shift. The murals are painted with inexpensive paints and no effort is made to preserve them. With the passing of time the murals disappear, some are replaced by new murals, and those located in gang territories often end up covered with graffiti.
Folk art museums collect objects but seldom photographs. If they collect murals at all, they are typically commissioned works by professional artists. Urban portraits of Dr. King captured over time give us a view of history from the neighborhoods that often go unrecorded. Gradually, images reflecting the culture and values of poor communities are lost forever.