Rico Gaston, “Martin with Family” (2022) (image courtesy the artist)

One of the ways that human beings come to know their value to each other is through the ways we are remembered and celebrated when we are gone. Certainly, the way we hold Martin Luther King, Jr., the towering civil rights activist and leader, in our collective memory is indicative of the key role he played in the Civil Rights Movement. The ways we commemorate him is also indicative of our own personal moral compass, our reverence for the idea of all humans being free, our respect for personal sacrifice for a greater cause, our love and care for Black people. But when we honor King publicly, as many in the art circle did on the occasion of what would have been his 93rd birthday, I found that friends, acquaintances, and colleagues used these moments to remember King, to pay him tribute, and take inspiration from his life. At the same time, I found that art institutions used his birthday quite differently.

Faith Ringgold, “Malcolm X and Martin Luther King fly over the Theresa Hotel” (1996), West Side IRT Station, 125th Street, Harlem, (2011) (image courtesy the Library of Congress)

In reading through my various social media feeds Monday, I found posts used to reminisce about King in lovely ways. For example, on Facebook, Dawoud Bey’s post consists of an Associated Press black and white photograph of King walking with a group of children, with Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy. Bey writes, “Thank you for teaching us to be fearless, and to walk with our heads up, proud and unbowed,” a beautiful and touching homage that stays with me for hours. On Twitter, arts journalist Mary Gregory showed a bit of Faith Ringgold’s mosaic mural installed in a Harlem train station that includes both King and Malcolm X, “Malcolm X and Martin Luther King fly over the Theresa Hotel” (1996), with the quote: “Never lose infinite hope.” And on Instagram, artist Rico Gaston showed an image of King with his wife Coretta and one of his young children in his arms. The image has no caption and is stylized in the way that Gaston’s work tends to be with beams of color emanating from a central or set of figures. Here it makes Dr. King and his family seem like eternally shining beacons whose light can enliven us.

Some posts sought to contextualize King as a father, husband, friend and mentor. On Facebook, Nona Faustine posted several images of King and his wife being happy with themselves or in the company of friends. On Twitter, I saw a lovely image posted by a reporter on social justice issues at the Huffington Post, Phillip Jackson, of King with the future Washington, DC mayor Marion Barry. The photograph made Barry a bit more human to me, despite his despicable behavior in public office. The Reverend Jesse Jackson posted a photo of himself as a young man with King, looking in the direction in which King points. He captioned it: “Dr. King’s influence on me was total. My seminary work, my work with him, my travel with him. He taught me what priorities should be.”

I also follow the actor and television host John Fugelsang who relates: “I got to see Coretta Scott King speak at New York University when I was 18 and I will never forget it.” He also retweeted Bernice King, who reminds us that the legacy of Dr. King was in part cemented by the work of his wife after his murder. She writes: “As you honor my father today, please remember and honor my mother, as well. She was the architect of the King Legacy and founder of @TheKingCenter, which she founded two months after Daddy was assassinated. Without #CorettaScottKing, there would be no #MLKDay.”

The most incisive uses of these remembrances were the posts that used the words and images of King to point to the work that needs to be done right now. On Facebook, the photographer JD Urban wrote simply, “May the MLK quote you post today align with the words and actions you choose over the next 364 days.” Dr. Sarah Bond, a classics scholar and historian who contributes to Hyperallergic, took to Twitter to remind readers that King’s politics were more than about fighting segregation; he also championed the working class. She references an article by Lee Saunders in which Saunders quotes King, “We must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ … Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone.” That’s precisely what needs to be said right now to all the exploitive employers such as Amazon, Starbucks, and those of their ilk. On Twitter, Mehdi Hasan, a journalist and tenacious interrogator of US politics coined his own law (Mehdi’s law): “As a discussion on racism grows longer, the probability of a Republican quoting one out-of-context line from MLK approaches one.” Of course it took me less than five minutes to run into a rhetorically empty tweet by Rand Paul asking his audience, “Let’s commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King by uniting the two Americas into one: an America that includes justice for one, and justice for all” — which conveniently ignores the fact that he and all his GOP colleagues are blocking critical legislation that would ensure non-partisan manipulation of the vote.

Screenshot of a tweet by Dr. Sarah Bond (image by the author, used with permission)

The artist Ayana Evans, writing on Facebook, tells us what’s at stake, using her commemoration of King to put out an urgent call: “Today, I urge everyone to remember the words he spoke about this very issue. Read the transcript of his 1957 speech, ‘Give Us the Ballot,’ … [and] Martin Luther King Jr.’s family has called for ‘no celebration’ of MLK Day on Monday without action on voting rights legislation!” I agree that there is no cause for celebration as a wave of laws that seek to limit the ability of people to freely vote sweep the country and federal legislation that seeks to check that wave seems to be dying in the Senate.

Screenshot of Facebook post by Ayana Evans (image by the author, used with permission)

In contrast to these sentiments, the feeds of New York’s major museums that I follow approached King’s birthday by using the occasion to create “tie-ins” that served to inform visitors about their current shows. For example, The Metropolitan Museum of Art tweeted out an image of a poster containing an adage that is frequently associated with King and the broader Civil Rights Movement: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In the threaded tweet, the museum informed me: Today is the final day to see this work and its companion posters on view in Selections from the Department of Drawings and Prints: Revolution, Resistance, and Activism,” also reminding me that the exhibition is also available online. The Museum of Modern Art employs a similar strategy, though carrying it out with a bit more tact. On their Twitter account they have posted a 58-second video with archival footage of King’s call for a Poor People’s Campaign. The video supplements the text of the threaded tweets which discuss the creation of Resurrection City” at the National Mall in May of 1968. I’m told that the ad hoc tents and wooden structures created their housed about 3,000 people over the course of the protest that lasted six weeks. And then there’s the kicker: Resurrection City has played an influential role in Adam Pendleton’s wider investigation of alternative structures and social formations. See “Notes on Resurrection City” in [current exhibition] Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen?” Essentially these museums use King’s birthday to plug their own exhibitions.

On the other hand, the Whitney Museum of American Art posted a clip of a conversation between former Congressman John Lewis and photographer and filmmaker Danny Lyon which took place at the museum in 2016. In the short video Lewis tells the story of reaching out to King to ask for his help in attending a college that at the time only admitted White students. As Lewis tells it, Dr. King wrote him back with a roundtrip Greyhound bus ticket, asking Lewis to come to Montgomery, Alabama to meet him in person. It’s an inspirational recital that places King in the context of working with then future civil rights activists, and demonstrates how the flame gets passed from torch to torch, all without overtly instrumentalizing his memory.

Brooklyn Museum managed to somewhat split the difference between these two approaches by retweeting The Art Newspaper which declared, “Museums across the US have organised special virtual events (with some in-person exceptions) commemorating Martin Luther King Jr Day. Here’s how six cultural institutions are marking it … while listing Brooklyn Museum along with other institutions. The museum did hold a two-part event they called a Virtual Teacher Workshop: MLK Day of Action, which promised to practically demonstrate how to link art making and social justice practice. So it seems, more than other art institutions in the city I follow, Brooklyn Museum actually commemorated King properly by modeling the activism that made him the leader he was.

Other institutions avoided the subject completely: The Twitter feeds for the New Museum, the Frick Collection, and the Morgan Library and Museum don’t mention the date at all.

I thought about King by sitting with all these images, anecdotes, sentiments, and cautionary tales, and they all made me think about the idea of a legacy. I wonder how I will be remembered and I wonder how these cultural institutions will be thought of too, when years from now historians look back at how we all behaved as the sun began to set on this empire.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...