Martin Luther King Jr. by Mural

Photographer Camilo José Vergara captures varying portrayals of the civil rights leader in urban areas across the United States

Martin Luther King Jr murals
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 was Martin Luther King Jr. Camilo José Vergara

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Martin Luther King Jr murals
(Maura McCarthy)

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.

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Martin Luther King Jr murals
(Maura McCarthy)
Here, Martin Luther King wears his robes, preaching to an unseen audience. Behind him are the Egyptian Pyramids of Giza.

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.

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Martin Luther King Jr murals
(Maura McCarthy)
“When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind.” The text on this brightly colored mural is from King’s 1968 book Where Do We Go From Here. In this passage of the book, King appeals to “white liberals” to rally to the cause of civil rights rather than observe the movement in “indifference.”

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.”

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Martin Luther King Jr murals
(Maura McCarthy)
While the location of this mural above a trash disposal site seems unusual, the artist of this Harlem-based work incorporated one of King’s most famous quotes into the piece: “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

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Martin Luther King Jr murals
(Maura McCarthy)
William Walker, the artist who painted this mural on the South Side of Chicago, was one of the only trained artists Vergara came across in his search for murals of King. Walker is perhaps best known for his 1967 “Wall of Respect,” a community mural (since demolished) that depicted heroic figures from African American history. In his art, Walker draws inspiration from Mexican muralists such as José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera.

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.

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Martin Luther King Jr
(Maura McCarthy)
“You notice that they didn’t tag his face,” says Vergara. “And his face is that classic photograph of King. He is often shown as taking it in and trying to decide what to do.”

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Martin Luther King Jr murals
(Maura McCarthy)
“This is not at all a characteristic picture of him,” says Vergara. In contrast to the peaceful, contemplative images that predominate of King , this mural in South Central Los Angeles shows King reaching out for help, a look of anguish on his face. In the background is a picture of a motel, likely the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where he was murdered in 1968. The assassination, for which escaped convict James Earl Ray was arrested and sentenced to 99 years in prison, sparked riots across the country, affecting as many as 110 U.S. cities.

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Martin Luther King Jr murals
(Maura McCarthy)
“This mural is sort of divided,” says Vergara of the South Los Angeles artwork. “One side is the American part, the eagle, the flag with Martin Luther King. The other part is the Mexican and Latino part, which has the Basilica de Guadalupe [in Mexico City] and the Virgin Guadalupe behind. It’s patriotic in two ways.”

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Martin Luther King Jr murals
(Maura McCarthy)
King is pictured here between jazz pianist and bandleader Duke Ellington and a local politician. This painting is outside of a community center at the Marcy Houses, a Brooklyn housing project that has become widely known as the childhood home of rapper Jay-Z. The project consists of 27 six-story buildings and covers nearly 29 acres, housing about 4,300 residents.

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Martin Luther King Jr murals
(Maura McCarthy)
This striking blue wall is painted with the faces of several black leaders, including Muhammad Ali, Coretta Scott King, Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X with the face of John F. Kennedy is pictured off to the side of the mural. Vergara took the photo in Ford Heights, a predominantly African-American neighborhood about 25 miles south of Chicago. In 1980, when Vergara captured this image, Ford Heights was one of the poorest suburbs in the United States, with 39 percent of its population at or below poverty level.

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Martin Luther King Jr murals
(Maura McCarthy)
“Martin Luther King Jr. was a lot more courageous than we are,” says Vergara. “But he is us, in the sense that he’s Mexican, he’s Latino, he’s Mexican-Indian, he’s Chinese, he can even look like Clark Gable. It kind of depends on the neighborhood where he gets painted. And I think that’s a real sign that he’s permeated society.”