MLK sculptures

Martin Luther King Jr. sculpture with hands, done by sculptor Frank Hayden ORG XMIT: ycC-8bPX_d1d6rrcmEq1

Today, instead of leaving from City Hall as in the past, New Orleans' annual city-sponsored procession honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. will begin at A.L. Davis Park, the park at Washington Avenue and La Salle Street named for a local civil rights leader.

The new route will pass by two statues that honor King, including one that was considered controversial when it was unveiled in 1976.

This year’s route is a confluence of two parades, the official city procession on the King holiday and the R.E.A.L. March for Justice that leaves the park each year on Jan. 15, King’s actual birthday. Because the federal holiday falls this year on King’s birthday, the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Planning Commission opted to start the official procession from the park.

As always, the parade will be led by city officials linking arms with religious leaders and civil rights activists. Strutting marching bands, dance groups in glittering leotards and chanting activists will follow on the 1.5-mile route.

New developments are coming soon to this historic area. This summer, a new landscaped path called the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Walk will be completed on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

The PlayBuild organization is also trying to establish playspaces for children along the boulevard's neutral ground in a concept called Pl@y MLK, co-founder Angela Kyle said. Neighbors said the neutral ground was historically a place to picnic and play but has become less safe and attractive over the years.

It’s these kinds of community efforts that pay true homage to King’s legacy, said Michael “Quess” Moore, co-founder of the group Take 'Em Down Nola, which pushed to remove Confederate monuments in the city.

“King fought so that black people would have access to resources. If none of that happens and you put a statue of him up, the statue has significantly less meaning,” he said.

Monday's march will start at A.L. Davis Park, pass by the traditionally designed bust of King on South Claiborne Avenue and conclude at Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard by a modernistic sculpture that is now celebrated by many as an eloquent memorial to King but faced early criticism that it looked like a cross-section of an egg on two legs with several hands reaching toward each other.

The bronze sculpture stands 10 feet high and was created by Frank Hayden, then a professor at Southern University in Baton Rouge.

When Mayor Moon Landrieu pulled a cord to unveil the work in 1976, reactions were varied, to say the least. Although some onlookers liked it, “photographers hesitated, children stared wonderingly, and most of the 200 or so residents of the Dryades-Melpomene area … did a double-take,” a States-Item reporter wrote. “Instead of the expected full-length pose of the black civil-rights leader, or a huge, dignified bust, there stood a large egg-shaped sphere with arms reaching around it.”

Hayden, a graduate of Xavier University and a protégé of famed New Orleans sculptor John T. Scott, explained his work as symbolizing “Dr. King’s lifelong quest to bring people together, to achieve understanding.” 

Central City activist Bertrand Butler, 74, co-chair of the King Holiday Planning Commission, said he likes both works of art. 

Hayden's work “is an egg shape, but what comes out of that yolk is other chickens,” Butler said, adding that it that symbolizes life and growth to him. The hands reaching out say, “Let’s get together,” he said.

In 1977, the year after the unveiling, the city renamed 35 blocks of Melpomene Street, changing the span between Baronne and South Gayoso streets to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. In 1989, 11 blocks of Dryades Street became Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, named for a prominent local leader of the Congress of Racial Equality.

For five years after Hayden’s sculpture was dedicated, a group of critics led by black radio personalities Larry McKinley and Gus Lewis along with civil rights leaders like the Rev. Simmie Lee Harvey raised money to erect another, more representational statue in honor of King.

A 1978 newspaper advertisement — headlined “King was a Man!” — declared:  “Let’s remember Martin Luther King as he was to all the people of the world. Please support the Martin Luther King Memorial Statue Fund.”

The fund raised $29,000, which was used to purchase a stone monument topped by a bronze bust of King that was created by sculptor Nancy Johnson. On King’s birthday in 1981, city leaders dedicated the bust at its position on South Claiborne near MLK Boulevard.

The monument was a replica of one placed in 1979 in front of the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, Alabama, by the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, a group of black funeral directors. The monument’s inscription reads, “I had a dream.”

After the statue was dedicated in New Orleans, the inscription was changed to “I have a dream,” an edit that is still slightly visible in the stone.

The site was chosen for its high visibility, said Butler. “We decided to put the bust there, because it’s on a federal highway. If you’re traveling up and down Claiborne, you can’t help but notice it.” 

The city's other King monument is noticeable, too, but for different reasons.

EVENT BOX: Today: the 32nd annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Official March. Starts at 10 a.m. at La Salle Street and Washington Avenue, after a 9 a.m. ceremony at A.L. Davis Park. A block party follows on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard at the end of the parade route, from noon to 4 p.m.

---------------------------------------------------------------

Clarification: The comment by Michael "Quess" Moore, of Take 'Em Down Nola, about King’s focus on access to resources for black communities was a comment on overall resources and was not tied in any way to PlayBuild and its work in the Central City community.