Realism vs. Symbolism: Petition to Replace Local Martin Luther King Monument Launched

by Nanette Massey

The East Side park was renamed in 1977 to honor the slain Black civil rights titan, and deemed Martin Luther King, Jr. Park. To further honor him, a committee was assembled in the early 80’s to nurse through to fruition, a memorial sculpture. Community activist Sam Herbert believes the statue unveiled in October of 1983 was not the dream the community bought into.

He has announced a press conference on the MLK holiday, January 15th, at 10 a.m. to launch a petition drive for the removal and replacement of the statue. It will take place in the park at the site of the sculpture at Fillmore and Best Streets. Although the 8 foot metal bust is not an image of Dr. King that most are familiar with, former City Council member Clifford Bell, a driving force behind the monument, insists the statue was a thoughtful effort by all involved and serves its purpose more broadly nonetheless.

To Samuel A. Herbert, symbolism is not enough. Herbert is currently chair of the Coalition to Save MLK Park, a group that was instrumental in bringing back the park’s children’s water splash. The coalition is down to five members all together, and it is on their behalf that he speaks. Herbert says the disappointment among the crowd was palpable at that 1983 unveiling. “I personally contributed $100 for a statue to look like Dr. King. That statue is a shame, and Black folks were in charge of this project,” he said. Herbert believes “racism stepped in and demanded these so-called Black leaders and said ‘this is what we want.’ Those White people who control many of our elected officials” he charged, made them defer to a more symbolic representation.

When asked what White people and White interests stood to gain, Herbert answered “I don’t know. I’m speaking of the mentality.” Herbert says he was directly inspired by God with the words “correct this wrong.” To him, it’s not about symbolism. “MLK was one of America’s great contributors to social science. We should be able to honor him with pride, just like White people with Columbus, George Washington, and the Lincoln Memorial,” he noted, referring to Lincoln’s 11 foot statue at D.C.’s National Mall. The Buffalo park’s statue was created by Boston artist John Woodrow Wilson, who also added to his credits a bust of Dr. King under the gold dome of the Capitol Building in Washington before his passing in early 2015.

Wilson spent some time in Mexico and was inspired by the colossal head sculptures of the ancient Olmec people. Carvings up to 11 feet high themselves, and weighing as much as 50 tons, depict what are believed to be significant rulers of their time. Wilson, who addressed the crowd at the ’83 unveiling, was looking to convey something more expansive than just the memory of one man. That prospect engaged Clifford Bell, current Senior Advisor at Buffalo State’s Small Business Development Center. In ’83 he was a Buffalo Common Council member and chair of the MLK Celebration Committee, working under Col. Craven Givens, chair of the MLK Trust Fund. Says Bell, “we wanted the kind of atmosphere showing that wherever Black men are, there is struggle. King was about so much more than his ‘I have a dream’ speech.

We thought hopefully this statue would challenge people to do more research about him” and come to appreciate the grandness of his intellect and the universal scope of his ideas.” Bell and Givens were presented with a model for their pre-approval and invited then mayor Jimmy Griffin, who was also responsible for a sizeable chunk of the funding.

Though the model demonstrated no exact likeness to King, the committee agreed “symbolism is still worthwhile. It creates conversation, interest and appeal.” Given how the modern Black Lives Matter movement has morphed into its own, he sees a static representation of King as less useful today.

The park’s monument is about “attention, fair play, justice, equality. It’s about Black men.” Bell heard of Herbert’s proposed petition after reading about it in a December issue of The Challenger. Herbert confirmed that he has not contacted anyone associated with the statue, either during its planning stage or since incubating the idea to dismantle it. “If he’d come to me,” Bell says, “I’d have met him for breakfast. He didn’t talk to me or anybody that had anything to do with it.”

“I can understand that reasonable people might be disappointed,” Bell added. Still, he says he can’t imagine eliminating the $200,000 statue that has stood as the culmination of his committee’s dedication and efforts for 34 years. He proposes the idea of perhaps a second statue in the park, and suggested he might even be willing to participate in that effort. Herbert wants no less than the melting down of the current bust and a complete redesign using artist Lei Yixing, creator of the Stone Of Hope 2011 King memorial in D.C. “Even Stevie Wonder will be able to look at it and recognize that is Dr. King,” is his goal.

Ironically, a 2008 Jet Magazine article reveals that the all White, seven member panel of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts rejected Yixing’s original proposal deeming it too “confrontational”, and sent him back to present something more “sympathetic.” Eva Doyle, retired school teacher and columnist for Buffalo Criterion, shares Herbert’s lack of luster for the current statue and was present at its unveiling. “I can recall there was a collective sigh of disappointment,” she recalled. She said she gets the symbolic nature “but if you’re not an artist, you don’t get it.” There needs to be meetings and community input into the next project, she continued, “because whatever is built there, we will all have to live with it.”

Buffalo resident Juliette Norton was there too. She wasn’t disappointed because she had no particular expectation. “There were some people grumbling, but I liked it.,” she recalled. “I saw a statue of a strong Black man, the way a Black man should look. Strong nose, full lips, and Dr. King was on top of it.” To those wanting to dismantle the statue, she says “leave him alone and find something else to do.”