In the Spirit of Martin

© Chester Higgins Jr.

 

What was your personal and emotional inspiration for this work? Where were you in your own life when you created this piece? Be as specific and comprehensive as possible.

This picture is in honor of a much-loved shrine found in the homes and working places of southern blacks in my home state of Alabama. Like the rest of my people, I embraced the sacred presence of Dr. King’s life and his work. This shrine preserves a memory – his inspiration. Living among us and standing up for our people, Dr. King inspired us all to rise up with him. He is the hero on whose shoulders we all stand.

Growing from childhood to young adulthood in the state of Alabama and being African American had its moments of joy and terror. Jim Crow laws locked us into a prison without walls. We were disenfranchised members of society who served as public punching bags for the white community. The few places where we hoped to find uninterrupted peace were our homes, barber shops, funeral homes, churches, and schools. This living on the edge limited our ability to express ourselves freely without fear of revenge. In the company of whites, we were often filled with uncertainty and tension. Ever present was the possibility of instant death at the hands of any racist white person. Such murderers were always protected from prosecution by the privilege that came with their skin color.

In an environment where the black people of Alabama were terrorized by white oppression, the voice of Martin Luther King Jr., brought hope. He spoke out to the powers in our state exposing their tyranny. In his sermons, he judged whites as equals and declared them guilty of terrorism. Before his time, no one had taken up our cause. Whenever he was on the radio or appeared on television, every black person would listen. The sight of him – the sound of his voice – would cause some to fall on their knees or raise their arms to the sky. For them, a Lord of Deliverance had come. Finally, God had sent a Moses to be among us and bring his people out from under the tyranny of white civilization.

Southern blacks held Dr. King in high regard. His image always found a revered place in our households. However, after his tragic death by assassination and the assassinations of both President John Kennedy and Attorney-General Robert Kennedy, a composite image of all three of these great champions of equality became the must-have icon in our homes and businesses. The images of King, Kennedy, and Kennedy were the only three K’s we could embrace. We considered these three men to be our friends. We honored them for the ideals they stood for, and we mourned their loss.

I made this picture of the shrine in the barbershop when I was a student at Tuskegee University. This was a local business. The Barber, like almost everybody else in that small town, wanted something of King to be in his life – to be with King as he carried out his daily labors. He and his customers found comfort in this image. The spirit of King triggered all our memories, our hopes, our pride, and our determination to continue.

How is this work a personal response to the life, letters and work of Martin Luther King Jr. How did MLK Jr., impact your life as a creative artist?

In college during the sixties, so many of us in Alabama became student foot soldiers in the Civil Rights movement marching against Governors George Wallace and John Patterson. We were answering the call of Dr. King and his movement to mobilize against forces of inequality. Because of my personal experience in these marches, I became painfully aware of what a devastating blow the media dealt to people of color. I took note of the pictorial coverage of us advocating for equal rights in Montgomery. As American citizens, we were participating in our constitutional right to petition our government, but the media cast us as thugs and potential arsonists.

This was a lesson to me. I saw firsthand that our story was being marginalized and replaced with a horrifying outsider’s view. It became clear to me that I needed to produce photographs from the inside in order to create a counterbalance to the dishonest images that were being produced.

Dr. King believed in the fullness of humanity for all people. He taught by example. He showed that it is possible to confront negative stereotypes with positive understanding. From my analysis of the visual media, I have discovered that three elements are lacking when people of color are depicted – decency, dignity, and virtuous character. Producing images that show the fullness of our humanity has become my mission with the camera.

 
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