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Photographer Captures MLK's 'Most Daring Dream'

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Photographer Captures MLK's 'Most Daring Dream'

Arts & Life

Photographer Captures MLK's 'Most Daring Dream'

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. organized the Poor People's Campaign as a cry for economic justice. Photographer Robert Houston was there, covering the historic event for LIFE Magazine. Now, you can see Houston's "Most Daring Dream" exhibit at the Morgan State University in Baltimore.

For more, we have Aaron Bryant, curator of the Robert Houston exhibit at Morgan State University's James Lewis Museum of Art. Thanks for being with us, Aaron.

Mr. AARON BRYANT (Curator, James Lewis Museum of Art, Morgan State University): No problem, Farai. Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Sorry for making him a Howston(ph) for a second like the New York street, not Houston like the city. So, he has produced some of the iconic pictures of the 1960's. Martin Luther King giving the "I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln memorial, images of Kent State. How did this man become such an able and adventurous photographer?

Mr. BRYANT: Well, you know, it's really interesting. Mr. Houston was actually mentored by Gordon Parks, and anyone who knows photography, understands the impact that someone like Gordon Parks had on the art historical discourse, but more importantly, using his art to have some sort of social impact, and to make a social or political contribution.

And so, Mr. Houston was directly influenced by his mentor Gordon Parks, and I think that's why we see such powerful images that really do address some of the issues that people are confronted with every single day, just as human beings, you know?

CHIDEYA: What's your favorite?

Mr. BRYANT: Well, there are a couple of them, actually. With this exhibition, we have about 55 images that we're presenting. But I had to go through hundreds of images, and most of these images were still slides that he had stored away, and have been stored away for about 40 years since he took them back in 1968.

I would have to say one of my favorites though, would have to be the image of Martin Luther King, he took it in Boston. He was doing a rally for the Poor People's Campaign. And you have King to the right of the image, and then you have microphones all the way to the left, and instead of having a white space - we often talk about white space in art - Mr. Houston has a black space.

There's just darkness between Martin - the silhouette of Martin Luther King and these microphones.

CHIDEYA: He's in his '70s now.

Mr. BRYANT: Right.

CHIDEYA: What's he like as a man? Have you gotten a chance to talk to him?

Mr. BRYANT: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, I've worked very closely with Robert Houston to put this whole show together. And I meet with him pretty frequently, you know, sometimes twice a week. And I meet with him so often. One of the things that I want to make sure that I do, is sort of document each of these photos.

The kind of person he is, I mean, he is - if you look at his photographs, you understand that he has this innate ability to - this intuition for finding the dignity and nobility in every single person that he meets. And he has that same kind of dignity and nobility, but at the same time, he's very relaxed.

And so, it's amazing to me, he's - I've shown him images that he hasn't seen in 40 years, and I ask him a question, and he remembers every single detail about every single person he's every taken a picture of.

CHIDEYA: How is the exhibition organized?

Mr. BRYANT: Well, you know, it - the exhibition was actually a response to a couple of things. One, the Maryland Humanities Council issued a call. They wanted to do something in remembrance of King's - you know, the 40th anniversary of King's assassination. So they issued a call for grants and proposals, and we were able to get one of those grants.

And the whole reason we wanted to do this exhibition in particular, it was sort of a response to Barack Obama's speech in Philadelphia in March 2008, "A More Perfect Union." And so, we sort of organized the exhibition to sort of address the same issues that Barack Obama sort of addresses in his speech.

And the reason we did that was because we saw an important connection between what Barack Obama is talking about today, and what King was talking about in the last few years of his life. So, the images sort of tell that story of how King came up with the idea to do the Poor People's Campaign. To do - you know, it started with sort of like this anti-Vietnam sort of protest, and how Vietnam was draining resources, much needed resources from social programs.

And so, we start there, and luckily Mr. Houston has documented a lot of the stuff so that we can tell a complete story from the beginning of the dream, King's final vision to the end when people were leaving, and the National Mall had been flooded out where Resurrection City and the protest took place.

CHIDEYA: What has he done recently? Is he still shooting photographs?

Mr. BRYANT: Yeah. He still shoots photographs, but he's pretty much retired and he's been retired for a while now. But most certainly, he still works as a photographer. He spent most of his early life, of course, as a photographer for Black Star, and then of course, the images that we have, he shot for LIFE Magazine.

Most of the images were never published, because the whole event was sort of overshadowed by - of course, once King was assassinated, we had riots all over the country, and then of course, Bobby Kennedy's assassination, and so, many of these images were never run. But he had always worked up until, you know, maybe 10-15 years ago as a professional photographer.

CHIDEYA: What does it mean to have this kind of an exhibition in the context of Morgan, a historically black college?

Mr. BRYANT: Well, you know, it's really interesting, because here we have these incredibly important, valuable, historic photos about - that seems to be a forgotten time in history, and an important transition in the Civil Rights Movement, when civil rights moved from just voting rights, and desegregation, and civil rights, to issues of human rights, health care, education, access to jobs, and housing, affordable decent housing.

And so, it was an important transition in American history, an important transition in civil-rights history, and considering that these photographs were taken by Mr. Houston, a Maryland native - he still lives in the same house he was born in, in East Baltimore. It was really important, I think, that a state entity sort of take claim of this exhibition, and to present it, you know, publicly.

But it's even more important that a university like Morgan State University that has an amazingly rich history here at Baltimore…

CHIDEYA: Mm-hm.

Mr. BRYANT: That we present it. You know, some of the top black politicians in the state all graduated from Morgan.

CHIDEYA: OK. Well, Aaron. Thank you.

Mr. BRYANT: OK. Well, thanks so much, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Aaron Bryant is the curator of "Most Daring Dream: Robert Houston's Photography and the 1968 Poor People's Campaign." The exhibit is now at the James E. Lewis Museum of Art at Baltimore's Morgan State University. To see some of Houston's photographs, check out our blog at nprnewsandnotes.org. And that's News & Notes for today.

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