The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

A man to remember and a movement to honor: MLK JR marches on through Chicago artistry

Sam Mroz
Designed by artists Sonja Henderson and John Pittman Weber, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Living Memorial stands in Marquette (Jacques) Park on the Southwest Side of Chicago.

In the 14-year campaign that was the Civil Rights movement, activism would become a national agenda. This social fight for equality flooded across courtrooms and street corners to the front door of every American standing with or against their common man.

A figure who built his life off the bedrock of equity and advocacy for civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr. not only rose but walked as he led hundreds through the annals of Marquette Park in the South West Side of Chicago.

Known as the Chicago Fair Housing Marches, this protest was one of many led by King in the summer of 1966. In honor of the march’s 50th anniversary, the Inner City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) commissioned a living memorial to King and his fellow activists in the very same park, debuting the artwork on August 5, 2016.

Produced by Chicago artists Sonja Henderson and John Pittman Weber, the artwork acts as both a symbol to King’s legacy and a tribute to his work. It is also a window into a prospective future.

“There is this continuity, this heritage, this connection with the earliest beginnings of community public art, which is now a worldwide phenomenon here in Chicago,” Weber said. “What’s portrayed in the mural is not just historical, but also meant to be a vision of what can be.”

One example of contemporary Chicago artistry, King’s likeness is scattered across exhibits and murals city-wide, most notably taking up space in Chicago’s South Side districts.

These include a bust and mural of King at the Martin Luther King Jr. Park and Entertainment Center in the Auburn Gresham community area, an outside mural in Barrett Park in the Heart of Chicago, a West Side neighborhood of the city, and a sculptural fountain in Renaissance Park, only three blocks away from the entertainment center along South Racine Ave.

For a more hands-on approach to experiencing King’s work, The DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center in Washington (George) Park has used virtual reality (VR) as a gateway to one of America’s most historic moments.

Taking patrons to the nation’s capital, “The March” is a VR exhibit that recreates the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Witnessing firsthand as King delivers his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, viewers can not only listen but watch on as the civil rights icon speaks to a crowd of over 250,000 demonstrators.

Examples of the man are carried from one artistic medium to the other and with these creative projects follows the opportunity for creative connections.

“John and I sculpted side by side, arm by arm, shoulder to shoulder for at least a year and a half,” Henderson said. “Both of us came with a wealth of our personal experiences and knowledge about this, and I think it made it very magical.”

In this collaboration, Henderson and Weber have maintained their friendship alongside the organizations that bonded them in the first place. Members of the Chicago Public Art Group, Weber having co-founded the organization with humanitarian William Walker, Henderson would make another mark in the growing ledger of Civil rights iconography.

Premiering her newest monument on April 29, 2023, she would honor the lives of Emmitt Till and Mamie Till-Mobley, a son and mother whose tragedy played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement.

Examples of a deadly past that warns of the dangers behind discrimination and racial prejudice, the world of today has found new ways to instill terror. Yet artists continue to express their craft and question how else they can respond through their work.

 “It’s not that anything is finally settled,” Weber said. “Life goes on and the struggle continues, but there’s lots more. More opportunities, more walls, more problematic scenes to overcome. So I certainly hope that some of the younger artists might be inspired to go out, dig in a little deeper, and perhaps to even evolve their own media.”

With more stories to tell than ever before, young artists choose to build their voices from one work to the next and in this evolution, reach new ways to understand the world around them. Hays Brooks, DePaul sophomore and creative writing major, looks to his own work for this very same purpose.

“I think art has an incredible ability to connect us in the present to struggles of life in the past,” Brooks said. “Art helps us understand a world that we would have no ability to conceptualize otherwise.”

Challenging the cause behind generational violence was and remains a pillar of King’s fight for justice. In his image, people find hope for change and a reason to fight for it. A friend for all to look upon, the legacy of King is a layered experience. One that continues to find a purpose and new ways to be understood the closer it is looked upon.

“Doing public art and being an artist that creates work for the people is a real devotion,” Henderson said. “You have to find these little things that you just fall in love with. Details that you would never see at a glance, but if you spend time with it, you will find something new every time you go by.” 

More to Discover