Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Power of the Visual Medium

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee.

Much has been written about his legacy and work — both of which have greatly influenced my own intellectual development. Here, I'd like to focus on the power of the visual medium in sketching the narrative of Dr. King.

  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Image via Scholastic.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Image via Scholastic.

From my childhood, I can remember the iconic images of Dr. King — from the March on Washington, from jail, from candid shots with his family, friends and collaborators, and from countless nondescript podiums across the country. These visuals helped cement Dr. King's historical significance for me, and, naturally, when I came of age, I began reading his work and watching his speeches. I wanted to learn more about his life and philosophy.

Three years ago on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend, I saw Ava DuVernay's 'Selma' in New York City. A steady-paced, considered film, it shows the intricate details, patience, and resolve required from Dr. King to positively effect change. The events of Selma, Alabama, of course, happened after the Civil Rights Act. Through various road blocks, Dr. King was able to use his principles to continually shift the needle of societal progress until his abrupt and unfortunate death in 1968.

Over at the New York Times, there is a very interesting piece on how photographs and videos not only documented these events, but helped shape and influence them in real time — forever altering the course of history, quite literally. This impact is indeed a testament to the real power that visuals hold in our daily lives, and a reminder to me that these tools and crafts are worthwhile vocations that do come with a deal of responsibility.

  Memphis on the front page of the New York Times on April 4, 2018. Image via New York Times.

Memphis on the front page of the New York Times on April 4, 2018. Image via New York Times.

There is another piece at the Times on Memphis itself — its cultural legacy for both civil rights and the arts, its current economic struggles, and its prospects going forward. Photographs from Miranda Barnes accompany the brief article. These photos, shot on Kodak film, indeed the tell the story in a way that goes beyond words.

I had the chance to visit Memphis and its outskirts in the summer of 2013. I noticed much about the city and its surrounding area, internalizing it over a few days. I could see its economic hardship, but I also felt a beautiful sense of vibrancy. Experiencing landmarks such as Beale Street, The Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and, perhaps most importantly, the National Civil Rights Museum stand as an important part of my own growth. Seeing and exploring the very motel where Martin Luther Jr. was assassinated was a wordless experience. Indeed, the visual told the story. 

- JG