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In honor of Martin Luther King Jr.: Murals that conjure the great man, the enduring dream [Photo essay]

Avalon Auto Repair, E. Colden Ave. at S. Avalon Bl, Los Angeles, 2005

Painted on the side wall of the neighborhood auto shop or the corner mom-and-pop store, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s image proclaims his place in the American pantheon. In some neighborhoods, he looks as if he might have had a Latin ancestor, and he makes common cause with the Virgin of Guadalupe and Pancho Villa. In other neighborhoods, he's accompanied by a stern Malcolm X or the pyramids of Egypt. Photographer Camilo Jose Vergara has been documenting such murals in Los Angeles and other American cities since well before the United States declared a holiday in King's name. Talisman, memorial and declaration of principles, the murals conjure the great man, the enduring dream -- and the power of the billboard.

--Photographs by Camilo Jose Vergara

Camilo Jose Vergara is a 2002 MacArthur fellow whose books include "American Ruins" and "How the Other Half Worships." camilojosev@gmail.com

Las Palmas Discount Market, 5600 Broadway, Los Angeles, 2010

Seafood restaurant, S. Normandie Ave at W. 47th St. Los Angeles, 1997

More murals after the jump» 

E. 76th Place at S. Central Ave., Los Angeles, 2009

Lupita's Discount Store, E. 55th St. at Compton Ave., Los Angeles, 2006

Private House, E. Palmer St. at N. Bullis Rd., Compton, 1998

Alley west of S. Avalon Blvd., near E. Colden Ave., Los Angeles, 1998

Ocean Tires #2, E. Colden Ave. near S. Avalon Blvd., Los Angeles, 2010

Paulina Variety Store, Compton Ave. near E. Vernon Ave., Los Angeles, 1997


Photo essay: Obamafication


Comments () | Archives (10)

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A wonderful man. A true hero in America. Wow just reread his speech.. sort of pertinent today, great speeches and leader's words are timeless. Can I say his speech gives me inspiration and hope for this nation.
Thank you King, for reminding us the pursuit of Freedom for every American is the rights we have been bestowed upon us by our Creator, and enshrined in our Constitution.
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.


Conservatives of the era opposed Dr. King's civil and human rights work, just like conservatives today remain opposed to efforts to better realize the core values and principles embedded in the Constitution (a document they rhetorically "revere").

On the 25th anniversary of the day designated to celebrate Dr. King's achievements, perhaps this is a fitting tribute to him and to all of those who continue to believe in and work for a country committed to popular sovereignty, equality, justice, freedom, tolerance, and promoting the general welfare.


Joseph L Cooke

How about a mural of the secret MLK tapes locked away for another half century?


What a shame he is not alive. I would have wanted HIM for PRESIDENT! POPE! AND WORLD CLASS LEADER IN ANY COUNTRY!!!
Let us use his words as a role model for our times. He was right on the mark for our planet and it's humans.
His words spoken years ago are haunting.
Years later, the same global issues are more apparent than ever.
We are MORE doomed if we do not do something NOW!
Look at the signs of stress mother earth is handling.
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Protest collectively for your passion.


It wasn't the Conservatives who opposed Dr. King, it was actually the Liberal Democrats. Do a research to see how many Republicans voted in favor of the civil rights bill and how many Democrats voted against it. You will be shocked had you not known this truth beforehand.

David Airth

January 18 is Martin Luther King Day. That observance prompted one admirer to say that Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) is perhaps the greatest philosopher of our time.

I never thought of Martin Luther King as a philosopher but I guess he is, even though he is not listed in any philosophy dictionary. Nevertheless, his philosophy transformed America, and as a result, the world. His philosophy was aimed at ending segregation and racism in America, and improving human rights. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, and emphasize King’s salient role, circumstances determined King’s philosophy and in turn his philosophy determined circumstances. He was an operational philosopher, an advocate who put his philosophical beliefs to work. Other operational philosophers who advocated and advanced the human condition were Freud (psychoanalysis) and Benjamin Spock (child rearing).

It probably was the inability of the US Supreme Court’s 1954 decision to achieve desegregate in schools that motivated King to do battle against segregation and racism. Although the Court’s ruling was unanimous (9-0), on it own it had little power or influence to improve race relations in America. It was a start. But many jurisdictions, especially in the south, ignored and fought that ruling. And there still existed a cultural stubbornness and a lack of will in the country that had to be addressed before the old folkways on race would change. As an abstraction the Court’s dictate was insufficient to change cultural attitudes and norms. Real social reform would have to come from beneath, not through court rulings, but through peaceful activism and the process of appealing to people’s better instincts. It was the mechanism of King’s philosophical conviction about America doing right by its people, and not the law per se, that started turning things around and began transforming America racially for the better.

But would his philosophy have resonated as well in another time as it did in the 1950-60s? Would people have listened to his message 20 years earlier, before WWII? My feeling is that Americans earlier wouldn’t have been so receptive to his call for social and racial justice because they were preoccupied with other issues. But the era of the 1950-60s was different. His message was in tune with the times, with people thinking more about the future and wanting change. His philosophical outlook alined itself perfectly with the demographics and sociopolitical sensibilities of the day.

What made his philosophy especially poignant and powerful was not just that he was a great orator but that American and the world was ready for it. Prior to King the world was engrossed in other issues, like wars and economic recovery. Moreover, earlier the technology to distribute his poignant message did not exist. It was television that created the mass audience that made the difference. Without television I don't thing enough people would have visualized or appreciated what King was talking about, that race relations in America were scandalous. The people who counted most and could make a difference saw on television for the first time the injustices perpetrated by Americans on other Americans. People were horrified and motivated by what they saw on TV, scenes of racial injustice and brutality, and they demanded reform. Hearing King's speeches on TV gave it all the more impact and urgency.

The world at the time of King was changing dramatically. Human rights had come to the forefront because of what happened during WWII and the Holocaust. People had become more aware of the ill treatment many people around the world were receiving, because of the growth of information and communications, such as that from television. King was the point man in changing attitudes towards race in America, changes that would eventually resonate around the world.

What gave King’s call for racial equality further traction was the generation he was speaking to. This generation was the so-called baby boomers, whose mass numbers began emerging at the close of WWII. After the war the birth rate shot up dramatically as soldiers returned from the front and as the world began to feel more optimistic. It was a generation like no other, in numbers and sensibilities. As Leonard Steinhorn wrote in his book, “The Greater Generation: In Defense Of The Baby Boomer Legacy”, it was a generation that was not blindly going to accept the status quo set by the previous generation, of social intolerance and unquestionable deference to authority. This generation of boomers was in sync and exceptionally empathetic to Martin Luther King’s fight for social justice. It was a generation determined to hold America to its founding ideals of equality for all under the law. Without this reform-minded generation King’s philosophy may have fallen on deaf ears and not led to the social transformation America needed so that it be the exceptional nation it trumpeted itself to be.

King’s influence was also in the fact that he drew attention to America’s Achilles heel at a critical time in its history. During the Cold War America, touting its democratic values and superiority, was in competition with communism for the hearts and minds of the world. America had to show the world that it was truly the land of justice and opportunity for all, as advertised. But King, in drawing attention to its social inequality, embarrassed America in its propaganda war with communism. King's pursuit for racial justice and equality for all forced America to reexamine itself and work to end its segregationist policies against African-Americans if it hoped to win the propaganda war against communism.

King was America’s savior. At the time America was a country sitting on a tinderbox of race relations. A significant portion of America’s population felt alienated in their own country because of their color. What heighten tensions more is that many African-American’s had become more educated and conscious of the injustices perpetrated against them. They wanted the same rights that were accorded their white counterpart. African-Americans who had recently returned home from wars, defending America and democracy in WWII and Korea, expected equality and recognition for their contributions. These people wanted their due rights as citizens, especially if they were expected to help defend and build the nation. Although there were race riots during King’s tenure, his peaceful marches raised awareness that helped defuse a situation that potentially could have gotten worse and ripped the country apart even further.

King's philosophical legacy helped empowered millions of people economically and politically. He also fought for workers rights. His fight for emancipation provoked legislation that gave the vote to millions of African-Americans who, because of their race, had been deliberately denied that right. Because of his efforts the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was pasted, one of the greatest pieces of legislation in history. Perhaps King's greatest political legacy is the election of America's first black president, Barack Obama, which couldn’t have occurred if it wasn’t for the struggle he led.

Machiavelli wrote: “The human tragedy is that circumstances change, but man does not.” We humans still don’t like change. But if Americans had not heeded King’s advocacy for social change in order to combat racial discrimination that would have compounded the tragedy.

Jon Healey

@Lc49b1 -- "Liberal" Democrats? Hardly. The opposition came primarily from southern legislators -- mostly Democrats, but not all -- and it had little or nothing to do with their views on the sorts of issues (e.g., taxes, government spending, abortion) that divide conservatives and liberals today.

@democracy -- Penalty flag for contorting MLK Jr.'s views to make them fit into today's partisan context.

David Barber

I love these different artistic takes on this timeless visage.

calah johnson

i would like to say that this is realy important to see and read about all the kinds of pictures and fcts that you have on MLK. he is important to every african american this month..and the whole year.. i am 15years old and i enjoy reading about the beatiful facts we have..and i cant wait o tell my kids all about this and every balck person that made it all possible for all of us africans americans today :)

Sula P.




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