Dr Martin Luther King
Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.
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Let the Trumpet Sound – The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Stephen B. Oates) 1982
My own personal favourite of the volumes I have read on King. Canonisation is a dangerous thing and pleasingly Oates does little to diminish the man’s achievements by humanising him.
The King Center
The King Center serves as the premier resource dedicated to the philosophy and methods of nonviolence to create the Beloved Community that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned. The site contains more than 1 million digitised documents and the archive is updated regularly.
Dr Martin Luther King – “Face to Face” BBC Tv interview (October 29,1961)
Filmed two years before Martin Luther King Jnr made his famous “I have a dream” speech, this interview explores some of the earliest experiences that were to shape King’s political consciousness. The interview teases out the realities of segregation through King’s memories of not being allowed to use the swimming pool, approach the lunch counter in local stores to buy a hamburger, or go to a ‘white’ high school. But in 1955, the refusal by Rosa Parks to give up her bus seat to a white man catapulted 26-year-old King’s name to national status when he emerged as a leader of a 381-day boycott of Montgomery’s buses.
Over the course of the interview, King’s understated and softly spoken style of rhetoric exploits the “Face to Face” format to its fullest potential, creating a spellbinding television experience.
Of course I was too young to remember the programme’s original transmission, but I always recall my father waxing eloquently about King’s appearance, and his timely use of the phrase “honesty impels me.”
In 1961, the Freedom Riders, a dedicated group of men and women, black and white, young and old, many from university and college campuses across the country boarded buses, trains and planes bound for the deep South to challenge the region‘s outdated laws and non-compliance with a three year old US Supreme Court decision that prohibited segregation in all interstate public transportation facilities. At stops along the way, the Freedom Riders met little resistance until Rockville, S.C. where an angry mob set upon them as they pulled into the station. This was the first of many such beatings they would receive at the hands of angry mobs.
Even to begin comprehending the palpable fear these riders would have experienced each day, is beyond the realms of anything I have known in my lifetime. They had been trained for this eventuality in the discipline of non-violence by a man well versed in physical intimidation, a man who knew what it was like to have his home bombed, his family threatened and to be incarcerated for campaigning against racial segregation and inequality. His name was Dr Martin Luther King and he lived every day as if it were his last.
It goes without saying that King is one of my all time heroes. His discipline proved that unlike white extremists, Negroes could fight for their rights in a civilized way. Whilst much of his thinking was based on Gandhi’s doctrine, he recognised the shortcomings of his own race in its view of white supremacy and introduced a Christian element of love into his non violent tactics. His task appeared insurmountable for whilst the Indian leader had been compelled to deal head on with an imperial overlord, King had to contend with the confused racial prejudices and fears of a white, dominant race.
My mixed parentage introduced an element of race tolerance within me from an early age as I became exposed to different ideologies, customs and aspects of family life. As a young child amongst relatives in Gibraltar and Spain I would play until I collapsed with exhaustion on the carpet whereupon my father would put me to bed. I would also often be out with my parents until gone midnight in bars and friend’s houses which contrasted with my life in England. I was mixing with mediterraneans, arabs and jews and whilst I was exposed heavily to catholicism, I also encountered other denominations such as the Church of England, Jehovah’s witnesses and Methodists, the Islamic faith and Hindus.
Here in England, I was not welcome in public houses, expected by many parents to be seen and not heard and until the age of twelve safely tucked in bed by a certain time. My father would often be late home from long drives and his inability to interact with me upon his return from work was the cause of endless rows with my english mother. One of my earliest friends was a negro so I was unconsciously a non believer in WASP supremacy. I even recall playing football in public parks with children my own age who I was unlikely to see again and deliberately adopting a different christian name. If I introduced myself properly the same old taunt would invariably be hurled in my direction – “What kind of name is that?” Since Spanish is the second most natively spoken language in the world after Chinese I would tend to reply “Every bit as good as yours” whereupon yet another altercation would begin. When I was feeling less combatative I recall answering Roy, presumably after Roy of the Rovers. who was a British comic strip fictional footballer who played for Melchester Rovers and first appeared in “The Tiger” comic strip in 1954. So, to some small degree I recall being different, and on occasions marked apart for special treatment. From an early age I became the champion of the underdog.
King lived in Atlanta, a state that, in terms of white/black relations, was always just smart enough to be smarter than others like Alabama and Mississippi. The raw, muderous violence of those two states did not appear to cloak Atlanta but it was still bitterly and rigidly segregated. Nevertheless negroes did have banking institutions, social clubs, schools, churches and land. The risk of pushing for change entailed perhaps losing what little they already had. King could have continued his work in Atlanta as a Baptist, confining his battles to local politics in much the same way as his father had done but he didn’t for as greatness was thrust upon him, he chose instead a course of action of national significance.
He was a man who could compartmentalize his life. An interactive father, he nevertheless disliked being disturbed when he was in his study, marshalling his thoughts and committing them to paper. The pre-eminence of his work as a peace advocate entailed relieving his sons of their plastic toy gun collection, a moral dilema he could not shirk from.
King was an intelligent pupil who original considered careers in law and medicine before choosing the ministry. He was ordained and named assistant pastor in his father’s church. Eventually, after being awarded a doctorate by Boston University he took up the post of Pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist church. His approach toward negro integration remained rather benign until December 1955 when he was compelled to demonstrate on behalf of Rosa Parks, a negress openly flouting local ordinances on public transport. A boycott of the bus service ensued for more than a year and King’s demonstration tactics ensured a Supreme Court order which ensured desegregation on Alabama buses. The victory was a modest one but sowed the seeds for the much larger campaign that would eventually result in the Civil Rights Bill of 1964.
When I think about King’s pacifism I am reminded of my own personal shortcomings because although I have never been a violent man, Hollywood consistently caters for my core instincts about racial injustice and one film more than any other arouses my ire.
“Mississippi Burning” is a 1988 American crime drama film loosely based on the FBI investigation into the real-life murders of three civil rights workers in the U.S. state of Mississippi in 1964. The film focuses on two fictional FBI agents (portrayed by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe) who investigate the murders.
It is very hard for the two to work in the town, as the local sheriff’s office is linked to a major branch of the Ku Klux Klan, and the agents cannot talk to the local black community, due to their fear of Klan retaliation. Slowly but steadily, relations between the FBI and the local Jessup County sheriff’s office deteriorate, as do relations between Ward and Anderson. Things boil over when the bodies are found and the deputy sheriff, Clinton Pell (Brad Dourif), realizes that his wife gave their locations to Anderson, and he assaults her. When Anderson sees her in the hospital, he storms off to confront Pell but is stopped by Ward. After a brief scuffle, the two agree that they will work together and bring down the Jessup County branch of the Ku Klux Klan using Anderson’s as yet untried approach.
I have to confess that my favourite scene in the movie occurs in the police officers’ recreational room when Hackman confronts bigotism and racial ignorance at its very worst.
After some light hearted inconsequential banter, he comes face to face with Frank, the living embodiment of Klan mentality, who suggests he drinks up his beer and gets the hell out of there and back to his commie nigger lovin’ bosses up north.
“You must not know my boss Mr Hoover,he’s not too fond of commies” replies Hackman half smilingly, “He’d be on your side there.” Frank, who is no mood for small chat cuts to the chase;_ “I don’t give two shits whose side your Mr Hoover’s on boy.”_ Moving swiftly to eulogise on his simple ‘down home’ philosophy about Mississippi life Frank expands further,
“All I know is that we have 5,000 niggers in this county who ain’t registered to vote yet and as far as I’m concerned they never will, so you can tell your stiff suits up there in Washington DC that they ain’t gonna change us one bit less it’s over my dead body or a lot of dead niggers.”
Hackman’s features darken noticeably;
‘You’d kill Frank? Is that what you’re saying?’
“I wouldn’t give it no more thought than wringing a cat’s neck, and there ain’t a court in Mississippi that would convict me for it.”
Turning to one of Frank’s compatriots, he enquires further;
“What about you deputy, how are you with wringing necks uh?”
“Just keep pushing me Hoover boy,” comes the reply.
Frank then lets fly with expletives before issuing his final directive
“You tell your queer assed nigger bosses up north that they ain’t never gonna find those civil rights down here, so you might as well pack up your bag and head your ass back up where you belong.”
Chomping at the bit by this point my bile is assuaged as Hackman grabs Frank by the balls and squeezes hard. You had better believe he has the man’s fullest attention by this point.
“You get this straight shitkicker – Don’t you go mistaking me for some whole other old body. You’ve got your brains in your dick if you think we‘re gonna just fade away. We’re gonna be here until this things finished.”
By way of “au revoir” rather than “goodbye,” Hackman exerts one last piece of pressure and Frank collapses on the floor, a less endowed but infinitely wiser man!
In many ways it is the William Defoe character who exemplifies the King doctrine and whilst I recognise this fact, it is Hackman, always a compelling actor, who assaults my sensibilities in the most soul searching way.
King experienced setbacks in his campaign. Having resigning his pastorship, he spent two days in jail in Albany, Georgia before being bailed despite having pledged to stay incarcerated until the city agreed to desegregation of public facilities. His reputation suffered a serious setback yet he was still able to move forward. Sensing tension within the negro community he organised mass demonstrations and sit-ins in Birmingham, Alabama before the police turned on the non violent protestors with dogs, hoses and most tellingly, clubs. King was jailed again but this time even the Kennedy administration could not ignore him.
The following clip was first broadcast on the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme “Panorama” on 13 May 1963 and as always, was introduced by the late, great, Richard Dimbleby, undoubtedly the saddest premature loss of all to the corporation when he died of cancer in 1965. My father was never one for sitting interminably in front of a television set but he was thirty five at the time and still passionately interested in politics. I was expected to observe his wish for silence when it was broadcast once a week and a few years later I would invariably watch the programme with him.
When Coretta King heard nothing from her husband after his arrest in Birmingham, she tried to reach the President. Before long, Kennedy returned her call to reassure her and the following month put his presidency on the line with an address to the nation about race equality. Prepared as ever with a script by Ted Sorenson, the ramifications of this broadcast might still have cost JFK his presidency had he lived to contest the ’64 elections, so divisive was this subject.
JFK civil rights broadcast June 11,1963
It goes without saying that one can only be purged of true racism either via superb parenting, suitable education or a combination of both factors. To my mind, a man from an extremely affluent Boston family might have hoped to avoid the race question throughout the eight years he aspired to within the nation’s highest office. As it was, events overtook JFK and he rose magnificently to the challenge, whatever the repercusssions for his political career. Two months later, The President would be transfixed by King’s personal appearance in Washington DC itself.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963. Attended by some 250,000 people, it was the largest demonstration ever seen in the nation’s capital, and one of the first to have extensive television coverage. There can be little doubt that King’s speech that day was the defining moment of his career.
Nobody was sure how many people would turn up for the demonstration in Washington, D.C. Some travelling from the South were harrassed and threatened. But on August 28, 1963, an estimated quarter of a million people, about a quarter of whom were white, marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, in what turned out to be both a protest and a communal celebration. The heavy police presence turned out to be unnecessary, as the march was noted for its civility and peacefulness. The march was extensively covered by the media, with live international television coverage.
Representing Hollywood were Charlton Heston, Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Diahann Carroll, Ossie Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier who read a speech by James Baldwin. Music was provided by Marian Anderson; Joan Baez; Bob Dylan; Mahalia Jackson; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and Josh White.
The speakers included all of the “Big Six” civil-rights leaders (James Farmer, who was imprisoned in Louisiana at the time, had his speech read by Floyd McKissick); Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish religious leaders; and labor leader Walter Reuther. The one female speaker was Josephine Baker, who introduced several “Negro Women Fighters for Freedom,” including Rosa Parks who had inspired King’s early success in Alabama in 1955/56.
Dr. King’s speech remains one of the most famous speeches in American history. He started with prepared remarks, saying he was there to “cash a check” for “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” while warning fellow protesters not to “allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.” But then he departed from his script, shifting into the “I have a dream” theme he’d used on prior occasions, drawing on both “the American dream” and religious themes, speaking of an America where his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
He followed this with an exhortation to “let freedom ring” across the nation, and concluded with – “And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
His was not an easy life and the last four years were characterised by the dual sensation of elation and fear. In 1967 he announced the founding of the Poor People’s Campaign to press the Federal Government into more effective action against poverty. In an essay not published until long after his death he maintained that the civil rights movement was compelling America ‘to face all its interrelated flaws – racism, poverty, militarism and materialism’. Meanwhile black militants, angered by what they considered slow progress, were turning away from him and his principle of non-violence and we can only speculate on how he would have tackled this divisive element within his ranks.
In the early months of 1968 he visited Memphis on three occasions and his children had misgivings, not that he might die but that he might be imprisoned again. Ultimately, they learned of their father’s shooting via television news broadcasts. In the meantime, their mother was being updated on the situation via a phone call from Jesse Jackson. The immediate aftermath of the assassination and its catatonic effect on the family is painfully recalled by his son, Dexter Scott King, on pages 47 – 59 of his 2003 personal memoir “Growing Up King”. Of course, life is for the living and the family had to go on. Dexter recalls observing the changes in Atlanta after his father won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and his incredulity that his hometown would grant a boxing licence six years later for the disgraced former Heavyweight Champion of the world, Muhummad Ali, to stage a comeback against Jerry Quarry. Of course, having advocated draft dodging amongst America’s youngest men at the height of the Tet offensive, Dexter’s father was totally at one with the former Cassius Clay when he refused his induction into the US army in 1967. Old habits though, were still dying hard, as Dexter and his brother Isaac discovered when they visited a shopping mall in the months following their father’s death only to be insulted and spat on by two large caucasian youths.
Even a basic analysis of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King is beyond the scope of a commentary such as this; suffice to say that my starting point ALWAYS begins with a conspiracy theory.
Even after his death, Martin Luther King generated controversy as a motion was tabled to declare his birthday a national public holiday. I first became aware of the campaign when I purchased Stevie Wonder’s “Hotter than July” album in September 1980 and removed the inner sleeve to play the disc. Rather than the expected promotional list of alternative Motown LP’s to acquire there was a stark black and white photo of King and a proclamation about his birthday. Nevertheless, the campaign faced numerous hurdles not least the fact that with the exception of Washington’s Birthday and Christmas, not one of the US holidays celebrates a single individual. It was felt in certain influential circles that to establish a special holiday just for King, was to “elevate him to the same level as the father of their country and above the many other Americans whose achievements approached Washington’s. These politicians further argued that, whatever King’s own accomplishments, few would go so far as to claim that they equalled or exceeded those of many other statesmen, soldiers, and creative minds of American history
Fortunately, for those individuals with true humanitarian leanings, this compelling reason to reject the King holiday was contested by a well organized and powerful lobby which was constantly pressurising Congress for its enactment. More importantly anyone who questioned the need for the holiday was likely to be accused of “racism” or “insensitivity.” Congressional Democrats, always eager to court the black voting bloc that has become their party’s principal mainstay, were solidly in favor of it. However, amongst the most vociferous of dissenters was Charles D. Brennan, retired Assistant Director of the FBI, who stated that he had personally been involved in the FBI surveillance of King and knew from first-hand observation the truth about his sexual conduct which he characterized as “orgiastic and adulterous escapades, some of which indicated that King could be bestial in his sexual abuse of women.”
Ultimately, it became clear that whatever objections might be raised against the holiday, no one in politics or the media wanted to hear about them and that even the Republican leadership of the Senate was sympathetic to passage of the legislation. Therefore, on August 2, 1983, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill creating a legal public holiday in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Although there had been little discussion of the bill in the House itself and little awareness among the American public that Congress was even considering such a bill, it was immediately clear that the U.S. Senate should take up the legislation soon after the Labor Day recess.
Opposition to the public holiday remains and as damning an article as possible about King can be located at
I am aware of the allegations levelled against him, and as so often is the case, the “downfall” of any man will invariably be associated with sins of the flesh. In 1977, Judge John Lewis Smith, Jr. ordered that all known copies of the recorded audiotapes and written transcripts resulting from the FBI’s electronic surveillance of King between 1963 and 1968, be held in the National Archives and sealed from public access until 2027. The document also suggests that King had strong ties with the Communist party. In wrestling with my natural bias towards the man, I ask myself whether any revelations to be revealed in eleven year’s time should, in any way, negate the magnitude of King’s achievements. My answer is always no. He was an inspiring orator and the central figure in the vanguard of change but there is much still to do. When I purchased my first home I lived next door to a negro and his family. He was a pharmacist and I used to enjoy our cultural discussions across the garden fence on sunny days. I was similarly approached one day by another resident of my estate who, upon seeing my neighbour from afar, was moved to comment about “tone lowering” in the area. I nodded in the affirmative never diverting my eyes from his. He appeared suddenly uncomfortable and never raised the subject again. I might have ‘dues’ to pay in hell when I die but I won’t be atoning for racism.