Today August 28 marks the 50 year anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, one of the most transpiring events to take place during the civil rights movement in America. Over the years, Dr. King has become synonomous with the ideas of change, hope and justice for millions in America, especially those still suffering racial inequalities today common in the poorest and most segregated communities. One photographer, Camilo Jose Vergara, has been documenting urban America for over 40 years and can attest to the power of Dr. King’s influence.
“I have seen many images on the walls of urban America,” Camilo told The Weekly Flickr. “But the one that stands out still after all these years, are the images of Martin Luther King, Jr.”
In 2002, Camillo was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, and in 2013, he was given the National Humanities medal by President Obama, the first photographer to ever receive this award!
“I was interested in the culture of the place and what the community values,” Camilo explained. “I found it in murals that were placed in alleys. Wall art reflects the community — what they’re thinking, feeling and even idolizing. It’s interesting.” Camilo has spent years photographing the same places and makes a great witness to the change these communities have really taken. Over time he archived many of the images people made, and he eventually noticed one recurring them: the image of Martin Luther King Jr.
Each street mural of Dr. King depicts many different core values and ideals, where one was to stop gang graffiti which had become overwhelming.
“It was interesting because there were three symbols that were particularly used for graffiti fighting,” Camilo says. “One was Christ. The other was the Virgin of Guadalupe. The last was Martin Luther King Jr. The idea was no one would dare deface these icons.”
“Martin Luther King Jr. was a great man,” said Camilo. “Most speeches (when you hear them) lose power. But with Martin Luther King, there’s something about the voice, about the way he speaks that really moves you. It’s like you have to stop what you’re doing. He has this staying power. People feel compelled to keep him on their walls. The number of truly great people is not that large, but Martin Luther King is one of those people. He has been there for a while, and I think he’ll continue to be there for a long time to come.”
50 years later, Dr. King’s image is used to bridge the gap between disparaging ethnic communities. He has forever become a symbol of equality and peace.