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Benedict J. Fernandez's Photos of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Buffalo Center for Art and Technology

Pulpits & Podiums

In August 1963 I went out for football. After a few weeks of early morning practices in the swamp-like heat of a southern Maryland summer, I managed to strain my lower back so badly I couldn’t sit down for the pain. My high school honor society had chartered a bus to go hear Dr. King speak at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, some 60 miles away. We academic-track types were becoming concerned about civil rights, though the county we lived in was so complacently segregated that racial tension had to be piped in from up north. My friends were going but I couldn’t manage bouncing up and down on a school bus for two hours with my aching tailbone, so I stayed home, missing that most memorable day in the lives of my generation.

In the summer of 1964, my father was posted to the American Embassy in London, England, and though I had missed his “Dream Speech” in 1963, I sat in a pew in St. Paul’s Cathedral in December a year later as Dr. King, fresh from his acceptance in Oslo of the Nobel Prize for Peace, and having stopped in England on the way home, preached the same now world famous words to a standing-room-only church full of Britons.

The Buffalo Center for Art and Technology is exhibiting 60 black-and-white photographs taken by Ben Fernandez, an internationally known street photographer whose work has been shown in galleries and museums worldwide.

Centered on the turbulent years of 1967 and 1968, these works present a visual account of the crisis points of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy as the culmination of the 1950s Civil Rights movement not so quietly morphed into the anti-war movement of the 1960s. In a silent narration Fernandez’s photos provide viewers with a chronological sense of Dr. King’s agenda, from the Poor People’s March to Solidarity Day to Resurrection City following his assassination in 1968. Ordered in between those pivotal events are scenes of Dr. King’s family, friends, advisors, and Civil Rights activists, including the 1960s versions of Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, and Julian Bond. In one photo King confers with comedian Dick Gregory. An image of a young white Appalachian woman staring sunken-eyed stands out as a portrait of poverty. A rare scene pictures both his wife Coretta and Dr. King together. Scenes of Dr. King playing catch with his son in the front yard of his Atlanta home, after church at Sunday dinner, and going through his paperwork place him among his brethren as an everyday, go-to-the-office father. Civil Rights supporters are posed with signs, buttons, and t-shirts, the gentle accoutrement to any public protest of the day. Later images speak to growing conflict in issues and perspectives; pictured marching with Dr. King is tall, patrician pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock, “the baby doctor,” King’s gateway white guy in his shift to a wider frame of reference once the rise of Elijah Mohammed and Malcolm X began to provide a counter-narrative to issues of inequality. Stressing “by any means necessary” as an alternative to the practice of nonviolence, Malcolm X pushed King to change his cause from “civil rights” to “human rights,” broadening his white constituency.

On April 4, 1967 in Harlem, in his Riverside Church speech, Dr. King came out against the war in Vietnam, calling it a “race war” and preaching against the “disastrous confused priorities” of the United States in going to war in Southeast Asia. King’s speeches against the war from both the pulpit and the podium gave then President Lyndon Johnson’s administration no end of frustration during the election year of 1968, culminating in an all-out effort by Johnson and the FBI to discredit King as being in the sway of the communists, splintering his white Civil Rights supporters, and on his position against the war, again casting doubt on his patriotism and creating a racially and politically charged atmosphere which contributed to King’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel (now the Civil Rights Museum) in Memphis, Tennessee, April 4, 1968.

The last series of photos focuses on the funeral procession: James Baldwin, Bill Cosby, Godfrey Cambridge, and Jackie and Robert Kennedy round out the panoply of celebrities in separate scenes of sadness. The image of Dr. King’s children viewing his open casket is heartbreaking. Bobby Kennedy, of course, would live less than two more months, assassinated in June during his campaign for the presidency.

The exhibit’s images—none of which were ever shown in Dr. King’s lifetime—presents a record of events and protests, certainly, but also reveal tragedy and invite introspection into Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last two years of life.

The exhibition is being shown in the gracious surrounds of the reception area and hallway of BCAT, which has begun to hold classes in medical coding and pharmaceutical technology for underemployed adults. After-school programs are available in computer design and animation.

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