A wide shot of a ceramics studio, featuring students working with pottery wheels and other tools.

In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dear SAIC Community,

On this national holiday, we celebrate the legacy, work, wisdom, and sacrifice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In his fight for desegregation, an end to violence and police brutality, economic opportunity, equality and justice under the law, and his “dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” Dr. King and his fellow civil rights activists popularized in the United States the nonviolent, direct action techniques of civil disobedience that have been used by nearly every other equality movement since. From women’s liberation and AIDS activism of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, to today’s Women’s March and the youth-led boycotts advocating for gun control, we owe a great debt of gratitude to Dr. King and his contemporaries who exemplified the power of many voices speaking together. Bolstered by a series of US Supreme Court cases involving civil rights leaders that affirmed their ability to assemble, protest, publish forceful indictments of racist Jim Crow laws, and bring legal action against oppressors, the freedom of speech proved to be an essential right for Dr. King’s work, and I believe all artists, designers, and scholars—including us at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—continue to value this freedom, just as artists have in the past.

Seven months after Dr. King was assassinated, the Museum of Modern Art held a memorial exhibition, In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, dedicated to the civil rights leader. Artists invited to participate in the exhibition donated their work and the proceeds of their sales to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization cofounded and originally led by Dr. King. The exhibition In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an example of how nearly 60 of the most accomplished artists of the day—including SAIC alums Richard Hunt (BA 1957, HON 1979), Claes Oldenburg (SAIC 1951–54, HON 1979), and Charles White (SAIC 1937–38)—used their talents of expression to echo, in the words of the exhibition’s mission statement, “the goals to which [Dr. King] had dedicated his life.”


Installation view of the exhibition, In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King. October 31, 1968 through November 3, 1968. © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

Interestingly, images from the exhibition reveal that most of the artworks do not picture Dr. King or his work, at least not in any obvious, representational way. Rather, this interdisciplinary show featured a heterogeneous collection of work by artists of diverse backgrounds, aesthetically honoring Dr. King by making a space for a wide range of expression. Metaphorically, In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King showed us a nation, or perhaps an entire human race, where many individual expressions can not only coexist but coalesce around a morally righteous vision that seeks an equal opportunity for everyone and encourages an openhearted embrace of difference.

As a college, SAIC strives to realize this inclusive, polyvocal dream. This requires us to protect our freedom to wonder, imagine, speculate, create, and speak. This is both a permission we give ourselves and a courtesy we extend to our classmates and colleagues. Similarly fundamental is our commitment to maintaining an environment inclusive of people of diverse backgrounds, personal histories, and points of view, so that everyone feels that they can participate in the robust exchange of ideas.

To honor Dr. King this year—which would have been his 90th—we should pledge, again, to continue to be audacious in our self-expression, unprejudiced toward one another, receptive to constructive critique, and fully dedicated to making SAIC a community where our differences create strength, our art making and scholarship embrace diversity, and our achievements help effect positive change throughout campus and beyond.

Elissa Tenny