When Joanne Martin embarked on an ambitious project to display wax replicas of some of the best-known Black Americans, she knew that her centerpiece figure had to be Martin Luther King Jr.
King’s display is the culmination of the museum tour at The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, which opened on North Avenue in 1988. The slain Civil Rights leader is also mentioned several times throughout the museum, a three-story former firehouse.
“Martin Luther King Jr. is timeless,” said Martin, the museum’s co-founder and executive director. “For me, his life has to be looked at from before Martin Luther King, during Martin Luther King’s life and after Martin Luther King. Not everyone has that kind of life where you frame it before, during and after. It’s the way he defined change, and the way he lived change. Because he is so much represented by change, you have to look at what he changed, why he changed it, and why we needed someone who understood the need for change.”
This week, as the nation celebrates what would have been King’s 95th birthday on Monday Jan. 15 with parades and acts of service, many in the Baltimore area are reminded that his impact extends beyond the city .
Martin decided to display a wax figure of a 26-year-old King at her museum. The goal was to capture the leader at the start of his fight for equality.
“We wanted him to stand out,” she said. “We wanted to make a point that this is a man that wanted to dedicate his life to something bigger than himself. He went to jail, he was beaten, he was marching, he was harassed by the FBI. He started this whole journey that would lead to his assassination [in 1968]. This would cement the idea that this was a man who decided early on to make a decision that would change his life and world.”
In addition to the large display where King is surrounded by other historical figures from the Civil Rights era, he’s also mentioned throughout the museum, including in an exhibit dedicated to youth entitled, “And A Little Child Shall Lead Them: Black Youth In The Struggle.” He is also mentioned alongside gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who is credited with encouraging King to deliver his famous “I Have A Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington.
Alexis Taylor, managing editor of the Baltimore-based AFRO News, said her publication’s robust archives are filled with images and references to King, who made numerous trips to Baltimore and Maryland throughout his life. In fact, King is mentioned in more than 6,000 articles in the publication.
“Baltimore was very key to the Civil Rights Movement. You have several Civil Rights giants with origin stories right here in Baltimore,” Taylor explained, rattling off names such as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and activist Lillie Carroll Jackson. “Those are the people who came from Baltimore and on the national level pushed the bar for Civil Rights.”
The facts that King was close friends with the publication’s publisher, Carl J. Murphy, combined with the newspaper’s sharing a physical space with the NAACP, meant that it the Afro had unmatched access to many of the key figures of that time, Taylor said.
“There were so many Civil Rights leaders that came through those doors and thus we worked in close tandem with those leaders,” Taylor said. “We documented his movement to the tune of thousands of articles. The Afro reporters and photographers were documenting his movement in real time.”
The publication has continued to write about King. In fact, its 20-page January edition is dedicated to him.
“It is completely in honor of his work and those who honor his work today,” she said.
Even though King is not featured in the permanent exhibit at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, his life is being celebrated through a series of programs.
On Saturday, the museum featured a talk with Jonathan Eig, the author of “King: A Life,” the first major biography to cover recently declassified FBI files about the Civil Rights leader. On Monday, visitors will be able to get a last glimpse of the exhibit “Vision & Spirit | African American Art: Works from the Bank of America Collection.” They can also listen to an artist talk with Aaron Bryant, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, about photojournalists who documented King’s life and other historic moments from the Civil Rights era.
“King remains relevant today because his work along with other foot soldiers in the movement actually changed systems — integrated housing, expanded voting rights and integrated interstate transportation,” said Terri Lee Freeman, president of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum. “However, so much is yet to be done, and the principles he employed in the mid-20th century can still be employed to affect change in the 21st century.”
King visited Baltimore on Oct. 31, 1964, just days before the U.S. presidential election, and appeared alongside everyone from political leaders to Black clergy in an effort to encourage voter turnout. The trip is memorialized through a photograph at the National Museum of African American History and Culture that shows King’s outstretched arm grasped by Black women gathered alongside an open car. The image was captured by Leonard Freed, a Baltimore native and famed Civil Rights photographer. In 1966, King returned to Baltimore and delivered a speech, “Race and the Church,” to a gathering of Methodist clergy at the Baltimore Civic Center.
King’s impact can also be felt in Baltimore’s political circles, where many current Black elected officials credit him with inspiring their public service.
Stephanie M. Smith, a Maryland delegate representing District 45 in Baltimore City, said she is inspired by King’s visit to East Baltimore in 1964, where he was in a motorcade greeted by well-wishers from Gay Street to Old Town Mall.
“Today, we’re trying to breathe new life into this once vibrant economic corridor and defend the very policy and ideals King gave his life to advance,” she said.
Baltimore City Council President Nick Mosby said King’s biggest impacts have been not only in his role to dismantle Jim Crow and advance civil rights, but also to address silver rights, which would expand economic opportunity for underserved communities.
“I model my political ideology on the theory that economic paradigm shifts are critical to the advancement of communities that have been historically oppressed through racist policies,” he said. “It’s critically important for government to accept the responsibility and develop equitable solutions to counteract the residual harm done, and focus on tightening the racial wealth gap, addressing health and educational disparities, and creating pathways for sustainable employment of Baltimore City residents.”
Del. Malcolm Ruff, who represents the 41st District, which covers Northwest Baltimore, said he is inspired by the “radical King,” which has “most influenced my work and my desire to become a leader in our city and state.”
During this session of the General Assembly, Ruff said he will propose legislation along with state Sen. Jill Carter, who represents Southwest and Northwest Baltimore, that will permit citizens to petition the courts for the expungement of previously prohibited criminal convictions if the courts find there is “good cause” to remove the record.
“This will work to re-right the historical racially inequitable injustices of our criminal system so that deserving folks who have made mistakes in the past can have a second chance to have a brighter future by having a fair chance to fully engage in the job market,” he explained.
Ruff said he also plans to work to bring back “substantial” state resources to West Baltimore that will “spark unseen economic development in areas like Edmondson Village, Park Heights and the Liberty Heights Corridor.” These much-needed resources, he said, “will create an environment where people can build wealth and develop infrastructure within their own communities to give them a fair shot at a brighter future.”