Camilo José Vergara began photographing art in poor urban areas in the 1970s. He soon realized that one of the most prevalent figures in the artworks he documented was the civil rights leader. “You have a perfectly dressed man with a perfectly white shirt coming out of the sidewalk,” says Vergara of this Martin Luther King Jr. mural he photographed in an industrial neighborhood between north and central Philadelphia.
Painted by an unknown artist, the mural features an iconic image of King. With the pillars of the Lincoln Memorial in the background and his hand outstretched to an implied audience, King is poised as he delivers his famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.
The mural stands about six feet high and flanks a back alley in Los Angeles. According to Vergara, a minister in the church across the street witnessed the painting of the mural and claimed the unknown male artist disappeared immediately after the painting was completed.
The graffiti below King’s face is a fact of the neighborhood, says Vergara. “Just about everybody has a positive association with King. An image like this might last a lot longer than another image with less authority. Everything gets tagged, but some images stay untagged for longer.”
Initially, this work provoked controversy over its religious symbolism. Many felt that because King was not actually crucified, he should not be depicted on the cross. Others supported the comparison because King died for the cause of his people. This mural has since been painted over.