More than a Gentle Dreamer: Honoring MLK and Contemporary Black Artists

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No more tacky inspirational Martin Luther King Jr. quotes about how he had a dream. MLK did not earn a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston University to land in a book of heartwarming quotes on love and happiness. Let’s revisit MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to gain a less superficial understanding of the revolutionary, and reflect upon the similar messages contemporary black artists convey in their work over fifty years later. Written in April 16, 1963, from Birmingham City Jail, MLK’s open letter meditates on his participation in non-violent demonstrations against segregation that led to his incarceration. Below are five quotes, organized in the manner they appear in the letter, that allow MLK to be remembered as more than a gentle dreamer, and are accompanied by black art made decades later to emphasize how little we, as a society, have progressed.


1. “I would not hesitate to say that it is unfortunate that so-called demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham at this time, but I would say in more emphatic terms that it is even more unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative.” - MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

Mark Bradford, Circa 1992, 2015.

Mark Bradford reflects on the 1992 Rodney King riots with his piece that reads, “REBUILD SOUTH CENTRAL WITHOUT LIQUOR STORES!! RECONSTRUIRAL SUR CENTRAL SIN NEGOCIOS DE BEBIDAS ALCOHOLICAS!!” The riots that broke out across South Central Los Angeles lasted for five days, resulted in over $1 billion in damages, and the city of Los Angeles declared a state of emergency. Sound familiar? Just like the 2014 Ferguson protests, those not directly impacted by police violence bemoaned the destruction of property and shunned the Black Lives Matter movement for supposedly not following the teachings of MLK. However, MLK would have understood the unrest in South Central and in Ferguson; he lived it in Birmingham and argues that those who emphasize the collateral damages lose sight of and ignore the larger issue of racial injustice.


2. “There can be no gainsaying of the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of police brutality is known in every section of this country. Its unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts is a notorious reality. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in this nation.” - MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

Glenn Ligon, Rückenfigur, 2009.

Glenn Ligon’s Rückenfigur embodies MLK’s clear distinctions between the white experience and black experience in America. Although the neon letters are flipped, the word still looks like “America.” Through his art, Ligon gives outsiders the opportunity to see the flaws embedded in America, and the ways in which the country continues to exist despite the systemic issues that have made America what it is today.


3. “History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”  - MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

Kerry James Marshall, SOB, SOB, 2003.

As MLK notes just how deeply structural racism is rooted in America, Kerry James Marshall illustrates the importance of educating oneself of this violent history within the fight for liberation. Accompanying the book Africa since 1413 that sits in front of the female protagonist of the painting, is an entire bookshelf filled with similar volumes on critical racial theory and postcolonial theory, including the following titles: Africa -- Asia, From Slavery to Freedom, Black Women in White America, Listen to the Blues, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, From Sambo to Superspade, Critical Race Theory, Soul of Africa, Black Women Writers, Encyclopedia of Knowledge, and a title by W. E. B. Du Bois.


4. “I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice...Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” - MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

Horace Pippin, Mr. Prejudice, 1943.

As Mr. Prejudice drives a wedge into the “V” of victory, four white men stand besides a Klans-member and the leader of a lynch mob. As MLK confesses, the white moderate more concerned with order hinders racial progress just as much as, if not more than, open subscribers of white supremacy.


5. “I guess I should have realized that few members of a race that has oppressed another race can understand or appreciate the deep groans and passionate yearnings of those that have been oppressed, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent, and determined action.”  - MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

Kara Walker, Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On), 2000.

Kara Walker’s silhouettes demonstrate the unadulterated violence of slave revolts with one woman running free while a noose still hangs around her neck, another woman pulling the head off of her former slave-owner, and a third disemboweling a man with a ladle. By incorporating a projection into the installation, Walker makes the audience mandatory participants in the slave rebellion. As viewers approach the work, their shadows are transfixed onto the scene, but whether they are assisting in dismantling the oppressive system MLK describes remains ambiguous.


So the next time you hear someone quote a MLK one-liner about choosing love over hate, remember that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a man who was against the Vietnam War, and spent his entire life fighting the symptoms of systemic racism, from segregation to police brutality, and recognized the necessity of strong action.



  1. King Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Birmingham: The Atlantic. August 1963.
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