Share this article

print logo

Bust in MLK Park: It's not supposed to look like Martin Luther King Jr.

The large head sits atop a bluestone wall dug from the Catskills, pine trees rising behind it as it keeps watch over Martin Luther King Jr. Park and Buffalo, as it has for 35 years.

The quiet strength of the 8-foot tall bust has been dismissed by some who want to replace the sculpture because it does not look like King.

But it was never meant to be a mirror image of the slain civil rights leader, according to those who led the effort to erect the lasting memorial to King. And they say taking down the iconic bust would be an affront to the community and King's legacy.

"This was never intended to look like King," said Clifford Bell, the former Common Council member who led the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee. "Its intent was to have this as a force for black power."

A limited invitational competition was held in 1981, and the city Arts Commission screened the applicants. There were three finalists. A nine-member panel, including four from the Arts Commission, picked Boston sculptor John Woodrow Wilson after each artist brought a scale model and gave a presentation to the committee.

"I want this colossal head to express an enigmatic image that will evoke a sense of ritual and elemental forces that a very wide audience can respond to," Wilson wrote in his proposal to the committee.

King has an "innate sense of identification with his own black people and their struggles, conflicts and celebrations" while also seeking finding a "universal brotherhood in all people," Wilson continued. He wanted to communicate the essence of King's ideas, sensitivity and eloquence through his head. Below King's head is an excerpt from his "I have a dream" speech.

25 can't-miss pieces of Buffalo's public art

"I don’t want the people out there to think the sculpture missed the target," Bell said. "What he did was his target."

Several years later Wilson created a 3-foot tall head and shoulders bust of King that still sits in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. Wilson, who was an art professor at Boston University, died in 2015.

Former Common Council President George K. Arthur was an at-large member of the council which allocated $75,000 toward the sculpture.

"It was told to us at the time… it was not to be an exact likeness," Arthur said.

Mayor Jimmy Griffin also contributed a similar amount from the mayor's budget toward the project, which cost about $300,000. The unveiling on Oct. 1, 1983, attracted 1,000 people, from residents to local movers and shakers to representatives from five African nations, Bell said.

Clifford Bell headed the committee that installed the bust. (Barbara O'Brien/Buffalo News)

Bell remembers some extemporaneous discussion at the time about what the memorial should look like, and that many were probably thinking there should be a likeness of King. But then Wilson made his presentation, and the committee was overwhelmed.

There was a blind vote, and all committee members ranked Wilson the highest, Bell said.

"He wanted this to evoke conversation about King. It was supposed to be a force, of life,"  Bell said. "It wasn’t just about King, there was a lot of stuff going on at that time when we did that, and there's even more stuff going on today."

He said if Sam Herbert, the man who is spearheading a petition drive that has gained more than 6,000 signatures in favor of replacing the bust, finds a different location for a new statue of King, he would help him erect one.

But, he said, "this kind of tear it down and tear it up is throwing the baby out with the bath water."

Petitions appealing to elected officials apparently would not be enough to remove the bust. There is a process through the Arts Commission, established through the city charter, that guides the installation of artwork on city property, city spokesman Michael DeGeorge said in an email.

Arthur said there needs to be a way to appease people on both sides of the issue.

"Dr. King’s legacy is about bringing people together, not dividing people," he said. "As this goes further, it divides the community and takes away from the legacy of what he was trying to do."

Thousands back push to replace Martin Luther King bust with better likeness

There are no comments - be the first to comment