Culture Rover

#45 - Taking the Con Out of Iconicity

For MLK, Against MLK Day

Matthew Herron's photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr., on the cover of the January 2005 issue of the OAH Magazine of History momentarily and powerfully de-iconifies this iconic figure.

King does not appear in his usual preacher's suit. Instead, he marches along in a more casual outfit: high-waist pants, casual tan shirt tucked in, the intellectual's silver pens in shirt pocket, t-shirt peeking through from the unbuttoned collar, a workman's cap on his head.

His fists are raised, almost like a boxer's, his mouth open in some combination of song, chant, warning, and surprise, his eyes dart off to the left, with a look of fierceness, as if he is measuring up the world watching him.

His look contains a hint of unease, even a touch of weariness. It's hot out, and the sweat glistens on his neck. Will this march work? Will the protests succeed? At this point, one does not know what kind of reaction, what type of resistance, what sort of hatred, what possibilities for progress the march will initiate. King appears as a surprisingly small, but stocky and sturdy figure -- bulldog tough as well as elegantly inspirational.

The photograph is from the Selma-to-Montgomery march in the spring of 1965. King has already become a national and international figure. He has a dream.

The iconic face -- a U.S. postage stamp face -- is present beneath the workman's cap. But something else is there too, something much more important. In this photograph, King's real human existence flashes forth in, as Walter Benjamin describes it, a moment of danger.

That real face, transformed by its complex gaze, re-contextualized by its casual workman's clothing, pulls us back from today's dominant, triumphalist narrative of the Civil Rights Movement, in which King's iconic visage serves as the seal on a closed, finished, successful story. In its new guise here, King's face reopens the tale. The dream has not been realized, the book on the CRM won't close all the way. Wedged open by images such as this one of King, the unfinished story of civil rights achievements reappears; it pushes back at those hands seeking, almost desperately, to close its pages shut.

Fixing his gaze just past the camera eye, just beyond us (the viewers), as he both marches toward Montgomery and recedes into the past, King's face dreams and warns at the same time. Fists raised, mouth open to sing, to chant, to shout, to scream, King's figure emphasizes how far there is to go in the Civil Rights Movement -- far beyond Montgomery -- and how dangerous the journey ahead remains.

15 January 2005

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