Two years ago, the Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired a conceptual work by Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar that reflects on the funeral of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The piece — titled “Life Magazine, April 19, 1968” — is one of Jaar’s lesser-known works, produced when he was culling through the archives of the iconic magazine.
Alongside a reproduction of a photo of King’s funeral that ran in “Life,” Jaar graphically lays bare the nation’s racial divisions at the time of the civil rights leader’s death. In one frame, Jaar represents all of the African Americans at the funeral march with black dots. In a second frame, he shows the white people present as red dots. There are thousands of black dots and only a few dozen red ones.
Jaar produced the work in 1995, but until recently it has not been exhibited. “There was no interest in showing this kind of stuff at that time,” the artist, whose work focuses on the politics of images, said in a phone interview Thursday.
Born in Chile, Jaar moved to New York in 1982. “In the early ’80s, I thought the issues of civil rights had been resolved,” he said. “I was shocked to discover that there was an incredible amount of racism against African Americans in the United States.”
While Jaar and his assistants were sifting through the entire Life archive for one of his best-known pieces, “Searching for Africa in Life” — a look at the media’s primitive coverage of the continent — he came across the photo of King’s funeral and was appalled at the lack of racial diversity there.
How could Americans of all racial backgrounds not have mourned the death of the great civil rights leader?
“When I started looking at the shocking absence of white faces, I couldn’t believe it,” Jaar said, “so I started looking for a way to represent this in a graphic and almost funny way. I did not want to preach to people. This was a way for me to express my outrage to what these images reveal.”
Reflecting on Jaar’s work, the civil rights historian David Garrow said the images of King’s funeral remind us that the legacy of the Atlanta preacher was an unsettled matter for many white Americans at the time of his death.
On April 5, 1968 — the day after King was assassinated — the story that gripped many whites was one of the urban violence and riots that followed news of his murder.
“For white America, it was very selective and partial [mourning],” said the historian. “Most white folks mourned it because of the effects his killing would have.”
Grief among blacks was profound. “The reaction is horror and is seen as utterly confirmatory evidence that any black person — no matter how famous — if they get out of line, is vulnerable to retaliatory white violence,” Garrow said.
He zoomed in on the red dots in Jaar’s work and was able to identify one or two faces. “Back by Coretta, three rows back, the man with the gray hair. That’s Jerry Wurf.” Wurf was president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, whose workers King had been supporting. Garrow noted that the night the civil rights leader died, Robert Kennedy also spoke movingly about his legacy.
When King died, he was advocating for “radical economic change” and had taken a stance against the Vietnam War, Garrow said. Both of those issues alienated him from some former supporters. “People in the Democratic Party thought King had self-marginalized. His murder alters his historical status hugely. What people now remember is his post-assassination enshrinement.”
Jaar’s work is a reminder of our historical realities.
Similarly, he recently completed a national memorial in Buenos Aires honoring Argentinians who went missing during that country’s “dirty war.” But he is also watching the U.S. news and said he is saddened by the continued salience of his work on race.
He watched the protests in New York, which followed the choking death of Eric Garner by a New York police officer, and has been struck by the slogans adopted by activists, “I Can’t Breathe” and “Black Lives Matter.”
To his ear, it rang like the “I Am A Man” slogan declared by black sanitation marchers at the strike in Memphis that King helped to lead on the eve of his death.
“It is unbelievable that we are still at that level,” Jaar said. “We have to say ‘black lives matter.’ What does it mean that we have to say that? This country continues to amaze me.”