Martin Luther King Jr. through the Eyes of Ben Shahn

Alternate views of history often intrigue me more than straightforward accounts. That’s why I find this Ben Shahn illustration of Martin Luther King Jr. so compelling. Originally commissioned as a cover for Time magazine in 1965, Shahn’s portrait of King was “part of a portfolio of prints created for the American Civil Liberties Union, which focused on civil rights. The portfolio was then sold to raise funds for the civil rights movement.”

And according to that same text from the contemporary art collection at Passaic County Community College: “In this powerful portrait, Shahn has integrated part of the text from the famous speech ‘I’ve been to the mountaintop’ by Dr. Martin Luther King with the image. Dr. King delivered the speech in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated.” An important reminder of exactly how crucial King’s last speech became.

But back to the image. Little is written about the origins of the commission, or any guidance Shahn was given from his editors at Time. If his arrangement with Time was anything like that of Norman Rockwell’s at the Saturday Evening Post, however, it’s safe to assume he had considerable leeway to express himself. C.B. Liddell, writing for The Japan Times on the occasion of The Magic of Lines, a 2012 retrospective of Shahn’s work, provides some rather partisan analysis of the illustration:

Another famous figure from those years is captured in “Martin Luther King” (1965), a pencil sketch of the civil rights leader in speech mode. Despite an apparent intention to give King a hagiographic aura, Shahn’s caricaturist tendencies can’t resist adding a few ugly touches, like one nostril shaded and the other unshaded, a misshapen ear, and a forehead noticeably lower than King’s actual forehead. This reveals a surprising ambivalence on Shahn’s part to an icon of the Left.

Liddell’s analysis of the image feels a bit dismissive. After all, his libertarian leanings most likely color his opinion of a left-leaning artist like Shahn. But it’s interesting that Liddell chose to insinuate that, for Shahn, an adherence to artistic style would have trumped his apparent respect for King. At this particular time Shahn’s work was in high demand, and it was known that he only accepted commissions that he felt were of personal or social value (see: Ben Shahn: Passion for Justice). If anything, given the gravity and resonance of this particular image, and the current national discussion surrounding civil rights, Shahn’s portrait touting King’s message is just as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.

(Illustration: Ben Shahn. Credit: Cover of Time magazine, March 19, 1965.)