The "big black head" in Martin Luther King Jr. Park is a mistake and has to be replaced with a statue that looks more like the slain civil rights leader, according to Samuel A. Herbert, a community activist who is leading a petition drive.
Herbert and three supporters kicked off a petition drive in front of the the 8-foot-tall bronze bust in MLK Park on Monday, King's birthday. Herbert said he remembers the unveiling of the bust in 1983. He said the committee that picked the design for the bust wanted an image that all were supposed to identify with and be inspired by.
"That was a huge mistake and for 34 years, this head has been sitting on this hill," Herbert said. "Two-and-a-half generations have grown up thinking that this image is Dr. King."
Herbert said the group plans to obtain 10,000 signatures on petitions and will submit them to the City of Buffalo, Erie County and New York State. He thinks a new statue, depicting King standing, can be created by next year's Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In addition to paper petitions, there is an online petition at Change.org.
Edmund Cardoni, executive director of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, also remembers when the statue was erected and the discussion at the time that it did not look like King. He got to know the sculptor, John Woodrow Wilson, when he transported some of his other works to Buffalo for an exhibit about the same time. One of Wilson's other busts of King is on display in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C.
"It wasn’t like he attempted to create a likeness and then failed at that. He knew he was making a lightly abstracted work that would convey the dignity, strength and power of Martin Luther King, and the whole civil rights movement," Cardoni said. "I loved it from the start. I still love it."
Herbert said he does not know how much money it will cost to remove and replace the statue, but he wants to organize a small committee to raise money and commission a sculpture that would show King standing, perhaps gesturing as he did during his iconic "I have a dream" speech at the March on Washington in 1963.
"We are here because we have a dream," Herbert said at the park, echoing King's famous words, saying their dream is to change the sculpture that many people believe is King. "This image behind us is a huge mistake. But we are here this morning to correct a wrong."
Herbert said he envisions removing the sculpture, melting it down, and using the metal for a new statue, but others, like Cardoni, see that as an atrocity.
"What I really would object to is the destruction of a piece of art," Cardoni said. "He's an esteemed and accomplished African American artist. To suggest it be destroyed, that is unconscionable."
Sylvester Herald, who is collecting signatures on the petition, said when he first saw the bust, it turned his stomach.
"It's very, very hard to believe that people accepted that," Herald said. "When you bring someone here from out of town, it's embarrassing."
He said he has been waiting for someone to get a petition going to replace the sculpture.
"It could be anybody, and that's not what we're celebrating here, anybody," Herald said of the bust. "We're celebrating somebody, Dr. Martin Luther King."