“Forty-nine years ago when my father was assassinated, he was one of the most hated men in America,” Bernice King said to a crowd gathered to watch and celebrate the dedication of a new bronze statue of her father Martin Luther King Jr. outside the Georgia Capitol, 54 years after he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington. “Today, he is one of the most loved men in the world.”
“This day was no accident,” she continued, “[The dedication] had to happen at this day, at this time, with everything that’s happening in this nation because once again Martin Luther King Jr. is providing a sense of direction as we deal with the current controversial climate. It is my hope and prayer that on this day, all across the nation, conversations will begin on the appropriate ways to represent this nation in our public spaces.”
King’s speech was one of several during the hour-long dedication ceremony, which also included remarks from Governor Nathan Deal, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and state Representative Calvin Smyre, who was the lead fundraiser and the liaison between the state, King family, the Martin Luther King Jr. Advisory Council, and the Georgia Arts Standards Commission. And most of the speakers, in one way or another, referenced the tense political climate after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which protested the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, ended with a man driving his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one person. The events reignited a national debate on whether or not Confederate monuments should be left standing across the country, including here in Georgia, where legislators are likely to address the fate of the state’s memorials during the upcoming session.
The MLK statue’s creation was authorized under House Bill 1080, which Gov. Deal signed in February 2014, not long after Deal removed a sculpture of white supremacist Tom Watson, a Georgia congressman and U.S. Senator, from the Capitol steps. The project hit a roadblock a year later when the original sculptor, Andy Davis, was killed in a motorcycle accident. It took another year before a new sculptor, Atlanta artist Martin Dawe, was selected to create King’s likeness.
The bronze sculpture, which took about five months for Dawe to complete at his studio in West End, stands eight feet tall on a 36-inch Georgia granite pedestal. The pose was modeled after a photograph of King walking away from Alabama’s Montgomery County Courthouse during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956. Dawe made some alterations, including removing the fedora King originally wore.
“I wanted him to feel hopeful, so I lifted his head a little, put a smile in his eyes, and turned his eyes a little to the left,” Dawe said, explaining that statues with eyes set straight-on, rather than to the side, tend to look frozen. “When you look at him, you wonder what he’s thinking.”
The King statue faces the street named for him and is located directly across from Liberty Plaza, where Georgia’s Liberty Bell replica sits. State Representative David Ralston noted that because the statue faces east, “He will see the dawn of every new day in Georgia, and he will stand watch as we continue to strive for the righteousness that each and every Georgian deserves.”
Dawe felt immense pressure to make King look as realistic as possible, particularly after he read an article a few years ago about how many King sculptures failed to truly resemble the civil rights leader. “I understood why when I started studying his face,” Dawe explained. “I could show you a photograph [of King] out of context and you wouldn’t know it was of him.” Instead, he relied on a slow-motion video loop of King speaking at the March on Washington.
Dawe said the timing of the sculpture’s dedication was “serendipitous.”
“We have General [John Brown] Gordon and Dr. King talking to each other,” he said, referencing the sculpture of the Confederate general on the Capitol grounds. “Doesn’t that teach us something?”