Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, and Robert F. Kennedy on June 6, 1968, our exhibition Rebel Spirits: Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. showcases photographs and artifacts honoring these visionary leaders who irrevocably changed the United States. Sixty images taken by some of the most renowned photojournalists of the era―alongside original correspondence, publications, and ephemera―illustrate the overlapping trajectory of their lives, exploring their deepening tie as well as how their interests expanded beyond civil rights and organized crime to encompass shared concerns for the poor and opposition to the war in Vietnam.
As part of the exhibition, we’re proud to display a bronze bust of Dr. King from the Collection of the Community Church of New York. Here are six things you might not know about this rare artwork.
In 1970, two years after Dr. King’s assassination, Reverend Donald Harrington of the Community Church of New York commissioned Harlem Renaissance artist Charles Alston (1907–1977)—the first African American supervisor of the WPA Federal Arts Project—to create a statue commemorating the civil rights leader. The artist was selected by a committee that included Harlem Renaissance painters Hale Woodruff and Palmer Hayden.
The bronze was cast by the Roman Bronze Works Foundry in Corona, Queens. Daniel Chester French, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and Frederic Remington are just a few of the artists whose works were executed by the foundry.
In the Hall of Worship at the Community Church of New York, this work is in the company of other sculptures depicting activists such as Mahatma Gandhi, Margaret Sanger, and Albert Schweitzer.
Throughout the 20th century, the Community Church has been deeply involved in the civil rights movement hosting prominent figures including W. E. B. DuBois and Nelson Mandela. One of the most memorable events included the debate between Bayard Rustin—the trailblazing strategist behind the 1963 March on Washington—and Malcolm X.
Though an inscription on the back of the bust suggests it is the first in a series of twelve, only five of these statues are known to have been made, at a cost of $5,000. One is on loan to the White House from the National Portrait Gallery and another was gifted by a private collector to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Thanks to the Community Church of New York, this is the first time the cast is on display in a New York museum. In a powerful juxtaposition, the statue of Dr. King sits opposite a display of documents celebrating Frederick Douglass and a model of Liberty Lightening the World by Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi.
Recently the BBC visited the Museum to learn more about Rebel Spirits: Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Watch it here: