Back in the Fall of 1997, we were awarded the opportunity to create a bronze monument of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the University of Texas in Austin, Texas. There was a nationwide competition for the monument and the competitors were quite formidable. All the competing sculptors started their careers earlier than we did making their resumes much more expansive as a result. Ultimately, our sculpture maquette presentation and concept of Dr. King with bas-relief pedestal received unanimous approval from the judging committee. The university student body voted in favor of our sculpture maquette as well. It was most certainly a pivotal moment in our professional careers.
The Dr. King monument was, at that time, our most ambitious and most expansive sculpture project. Not only did we create the bronze sculpture but we also designed the limestone platform for the monument. We had the great opportunity to work with our friend John Payne, the university architect, who effectively coordinated the project.
We spent many hours researching and acquiring as much information possible on Martin Luther King, Jr. We knew from the very beginning that sculpting a good likeness of Dr. King was of paramount importance. We know from experience that when a figurative sculpture is unveiled, the first thing people naturally focus on is the face.
During our research, we had the privilege of meeting the photographer, Flip Schulke, who was to the Southern Civil Rights Movement what the photographer, Matthew Brady, was to the Civil War. Over the years Flip Schulke amassed thousands of photographs recording many events in the Civil Rights Movement. Flip was very close to the King family and knew other major leaders of the Civil Rights Movement such as Ralph Abernathy and John Lewis. He was very generous and he even gave us photo proof sheets of Dr. King preaching in Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. The proof sheets and our visit to the Ebenezer Baptist Church reaffirmed our original concept of portraying Dr. King in his doctoral minister robe as well as the design for the pedestal, which houses the bas-relief panels, based on the pulpit Dr. King used while giving his sermons.
Most people view Dr. King as a social activist who always wore a regular suit. Our portrayal shows him as he really was – a Baptist minister. Dr. King believed in his heart that he was always a Baptist preacher. The doctoral robe also emphasizes the idea that Dr. King received a doctorate in Theology. He was well versed, not only in Judeo-Christian theology, but also philosophy and history. It can be stated that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the great social philosophers of his time.
The bas-relief pedestal illustrates the seminal events which Dr. King experienced in the Civil Rights Movement. The front panel of the pedestal depicts the “I Have a Dream” speech he delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The left side panel shows Dr. King in the infamous Birmingham Jail and the right side panel illustrates the hazards marchers had to endure when trying to march peacefully in Selma, Alabama. Finally, the back panel depicts Coretta King and her daughter, Bernice, grieving at Dr. King’s funeral. This painful scene pays homage to Dr. King’s martyrdom and to the ultimate price he paid for his belief in a more just society. While creating the pedestal relief panels, we had the benefit of having some of our friends pose for the front panel and we even included ourselves with Bishop Perry of Chicago in the marcher scene on the right side panel.
During the process of creating our Dr. King Monument, we experienced much praise, recognition, and even controversy. Our film maker friend, Greg Gantner took many hours of film footage from the first day of the monument’s inception to the final dedication at the University of Texas. When the Dr. King sculpture was almost completed in the clay stage, a local television station broadcasted our work on the evening news. We felt it important to get as much publicity possible concerning the monument and to have as much documentation through Greg Gantner’s film footage for historical record. Soon after the media coverage we received, in the mail, a disturbing Neo-Nazi pamphlet with Waffen SS runes on the front page. We immediately gave the pamphlet to the local authorities. A few days later we were shocked to discover that most of our clay Dr. King sculpture was destroyed. To this day it’s still inconclusive to us whether it was an armature flaw or an act of vandalism. The insurance company determined that it could have been an act of vandalism because the right arm of the armature seemed to have been pulled out by someone rather than pulled down by gravity. Despite this setback, we were able to fully recover and our final rendition of the Dr. King figure turned out even better
The final unveiling and dedication of our Dr. King Monument was a total success and it was praised by both the media and Martin Luther King III. Several months later the Dr. King monument was splattered with eggs and was immediately cleaned up by student volunteers. There was so much controversy and debate from the left and the right concerning the monument. When one visits the Austin, Texas Capitol and the University of Texas campus, one is immediately struck by how many monuments there are glorifying the Confederacy. One can see how controversial it was for reactionaries to even consider a monument dedicated to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and there was talk amongst progressives about removing the sculptures of the Confederacy altogether in the spirit of political correctness. We believe that the sculptures dedicated to the memory of the Confederacy should remain where they are as a lesson in history. Future generations can see our Dr. King monument standing alongside the Confederate sculptures. It’s a reminder and symbol of America’s willingness to improve itself.
As our nation observes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day we are reminded of the contributions and the ultimate sacrifice Dr. King made in his quest for equal rights through the Civil Rights Movement. It is a reminder of the progress that’s been made in the human condition and how much still has to be achieved. After all, the idea of America is not only a diverse nation of states, but also a nation undergoing an ongoing progression process made possible through the rule of law.