WASHINGTON — There is an artful spareness to the "One Life: Martin Luther King Jr." exhibit, which opened Friday at the National Portrait Gallery. It recognizes that a life so significant, outsized and fully chronicled can sometimes be best served in a presentation that acts as metaphor for that life — brief and powerful.
"I worry that for young people today, King has been reduced to just a dream," says curator Ann Shumard. King wasn't most importantly a dreamer, he was a doer, Shumard says. "My hope is that through these images," most of which belong to the gallery, "it will be possible to follow the path King followed" seeing both his achievements and setbacks. "A successful person isn't someone who just goes from triumph to triumph," Shumard says. "You can take those setbacks and turn those into the foundation for the success that follows."
The 33-object, one-room exhibition — comprised of photos, portraits, programs and magazine covers — uses the upcoming 50th anniversary of the March on Washington as a jumping off point for considering the sweep of King's 39 years.
A panoramic photo of King addressing the August 28, 1963, March on Washington marks the exhibition's entrance, and it officially begins with a photo of King's parents, siblings and grandmother. Visitors may be surprised to learn that the civil rights icon was born Michael Luther King Jr. (He was named for his father, who formally changed his own name, and his son's, when the younger King was five.)
Next is a 1955 photo of King with his wife, Coretta and baby daughter, Yolanda on the steps of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., a year after King became resident pastor and began leading the Montgomery bus boycott.
It is not until the conscience of the nation is engaged that white faces begin to show up in these photos, and in some cases — such as the White House signing ceremony for the 1964 Civil Rights Act — become predominant. In that first bus ride, King stares out the window, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy's gaze is fixed straight ahead and all around are white Americans in close proximity. Everyone is silent.
The boycott's success ushered in a time of heightened exposure and danger for King. A 1957 Time magazine with his portrait on the cover hails him as "one of the nation's remarkable leaders." A first edition of his book about the Montgomery boycott, "Stride Toward Freedom," is under glass, and the accompanying text recounts that King was nearly killed during a Harlem book signing after a woman attacked him with a letter opener.
The Albany Movement, the nadir of King's career, is depicted in a jailhouse photo. City officials reneged on promises to desegregate while still refraining from using violence against protesters, and the 1961-1962 campaign, which included three jail stints for King, failed.
It was a case of "know your adversary," Shumard says. "The police chief recognized that violence played into King's hand" and attracted national attention and sympathy for the protesters.
In a formal portrait from 1962, without signposts and crowds for context, King stares out at a distant horizon, and the photographer uses pose and lighting to convey vision and gravitas. King's stillness amid a swirl of violent social upheaval is one of the exhibition's most lucid and transcendent moments.
The following year saw the assassination of Medgar Evers, the March on Washington and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The strain of these events begins to show in photos. King is jailed in Birmingham, Ala., — which was so wracked by violence it was nicknamed "Bombingham" — where he writes his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."
When then-President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act, King is seated in the second row — one of only two recognizably black faces in a sea of white men. King locks arms with protesters in a Selma, Ala., photo featuring the young future congressman John Lewis, D-Ga., before the marchers were beaten as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge — a crossing that became known as "Bloody Sunday." Those events helped galvanize support for the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
King and others continued to march, rally and petition, turning their attention toward fair housing, equal employment and against the Vietnam War. In his "last, greatest dream," King launched the Poor People's Campaign for economic justice in 1967. It led him to Memphis, to support a sanitation worker's strike, and to his death in April 1968. A photolithographic poster captures his words at Memphis's Mason Temple, the day before his death: "I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land."
The exhibition concludes with images of protesters — one black, one white — the day before King's funeral with signs that read: "Honor King: End Racism!" and "Union Justice Now!" Nearby, two Life magazines chronicle his assassination and his funeral.
In short time for such a remarkable life, the exhibition ends. And in a rare feat for those our nation has consigned to the easy, inadequate shorthand of their most famous words — in King's case, "I have a dream," — it leaves visitors with a lasting impression of purpose, movement and sacrifice, deepening our appreciation for King's life and the tragedy of his loss.
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"One Life: Martin Luther King Jr." is open through June 1, 2014, at the National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW, Washington. Information: 202-633-1000. www.npg.si.edu. Free.