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.
“One Life: Martin Luther King Jr.” open through June 1, 2014, at the National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW.