The Art of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Aunye Boone
Photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash

"We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, our nation celebrates Dr. King’s legacy and prolific career as an activist, leader, and minister during the civil rights movement. Dr. King was known for his speeches, sermons, and writings that motivated society to strive for racial equality, peace, and justice. His most notable speech, “I Have a Dream,” was delivered in 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial—aiming to give all Americans hope and inspiration to achieve civil and economic equality. In 1964, Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his dynamic leadership and nonviolent campaign efforts. Dr. King’s life journey and powerful words leave timeless footprints in our nation and remain relevant in our continued quest towards freedom and justice for all.

At the NEA, we are proud to support many artists and arts organizations as well as provide opportunities for participation and engagement in many MLK-based artworks that have enriched our nation’s cultural fabric. Take a virtual walk with us as we explore artworks across various disciplines that celebrate Dr. King’s life and impact.

Theater Discipline: Arena Stage
In 2013, NEA funding supported the Arena Stage production of The Mountaintop written by Katori Hall and directed by Robert O'Hara. This play takes the audience inside room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on Dr. King’s final night before his assassination. Actor Bowman Wright embodies Dr. King through his authentic showcase of the innermost thoughts of a man fiercely committed to civil protest. Listen to the NEA’s podcast with actor Bowman Wright here.

NEA-Commissioned Sculpture of Dr. King
In 1985, the NEA’s panel committee selected John Wilson to sculpt the MLK bust at the Architect of the Capitol. Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s wife, served on the advisory committee and provided the panel with insight pertaining to Dr. King’s character and physical expressions, which would ultimately guide the panel as they reviewed the competing sculptors’ preliminary models. The bust was officially unveiled on January 16, 1986. Click here to read the full story and see photos of the bust.

Music Discipline: The Philadelphia Orchestra
In 2022, with NEA funding, The Philadelphia Orchestra presented its 32nd annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Tribute Concert, led by music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The concert was free to the public and paid tribute to Dr. King’s vision of a society free of racial injustice and his belief in the power of music as a tool for change. The concert showcased works by Black composers, including a recitation of excerpts from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as an accompaniment to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”

Dance Discipline: Dallas Black Dance Theatre
In 2022, NEA grantee Dallas Black Dance Theatre celebrated Dr. King through song and movement in the production of Bodies as Site of Faith and Protest, with dancers artistically interpreting the “We Shall Overcome” speech. Choreographer Tommie-Waheed Evans originally developed the work as part of his college thesis, which delved into the profound impact that speeches from the civil rights movement had upon societal advancement.

NEA Literature Fellow June Jordan: Tribute Poem
June Jordan, a 1981 NEA Literature Fellow, wrote a tribute poem to Dr. King titled "In Memoriam: Martin Luther King, Jr.," which examines violence in society and makes plain the work that remains to end inequality in America. In recent years, many Poetry Out Loud participants have used Jordan’s poem during their competitions. To read the poem, click here.

Visual Arts Discipline: Research Foundation for the State University of New York at Buffalo
In 2021, the Research Foundation for the State University of New York at Buffalo, an NEA grantee, brought the Lorraine Motel balcony—the site of Dr. King’s assassination—to life through artist Heather Hart’s exhibition: “Afrotecture (Re)Collection.” The recreation of the motel balcony served as a creative space for college students and the public to gather, memorialize, and reflect upon a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement.

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