Today, we celebrate the life and legacy of activist Martin Luther King, Jr. 

While MLK undoubtedly changed the course of American history through his profound work towards racial equality and advancing civil rights, the miniter’s reach didn’t end there. We explore a few ways MLK also influenced the world of performing arts, and artist expression as a whole, as well as offer suggestions on a few pieces of media you can view or read to honor his legacy. 


Who Was MLK?

Martin Luther King Jr. began his professional life as a Baptist minister. Starting in the mid-1950s, King established himself as one of the U.S.’s most prominent civil rights activists, remaining steadfast in his efforts until his assassination in 1986. 

The son of an early civil rights leader and minister, King worked diligently through the 50s and 60s to advance civil rights and fight against unjust Jim Crow laws for Black Americans and other marginalized groups, utilizing nonviolence and civil disobedience. 


MLK and Artistic Expression

Through his actions, MLK inspired a variety of artists in all mediums to create moving creations – both during his life and after his assassination. A few of these inspirations include: 

  • The Dance Theatre of Harlem

This professional ballet company was created in direct response to MLK’s assassination. The school, opened in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell, encouraged Black dancers to delve into the world of ballet – a space that they were rarely, if ever, invited into before.

  • The Museum of Modern Art’s In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King

The MoMA created a comprehensive exhibition just seven months after MLK’s death in his honor. The show consisted of works by a variety of leading artists of the time, and sales benefited the Southern Christian Leadership Conference – an African-American civil rights organization for which King served as president.

  • Musical Acknowledgments

A variety of songs have been created through MLK’s legacy – from “Shed a Little Light” by James Taylor to “They Killed Him” by Bob Dylan. Perhaps the most poignant is ‎“Why? (The King of Love Is Dead),” recorded and released by Nina Simone soon after King’s murder. (If you’re looking to get inspired through song today, head to your preferred music streaming service and look up some MLK Day playlists!) 

  • An Outpouring of Street Art

MLK’s likeness has been the subject of numerous pieces of stunning street art – both in the 1960s-70s and throughout the following decades. 

  • Further Inclusion in White-Controlled Spaces

In responding to King’s assassination, a large number of white arts institutions began truly understanding the need for more diversity in their spaces, following the behest of Black creators around the country. Theaters, art galleries, museums and other creative spaces began inviting more Black artists into their doors. 

  • Impact on Classical Music

Much like the world of ballet, American symphonies were once rife with segregation and discrimination. King’s message worked to soften those divides; orchestras around the country worked harder in the 1970s to recruit and feature Black musicians, as well as other minorities. A few include the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Nashville Symphony, and the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. 


Works About MLK

Take a bit of time today to learn more about MLK and his life through a variety of media offerings. Suggestions include: 

  • Moments with Dr. King (2011 Play)

Moments with Dr. King offers factually based slices of the activist’s life, following MLK from December 1955 until April 1968. Readers and viewers will get a peek into intimate moments in his life, as well as major historical touchstones. 

  • The Mountaintop (2009 Play)

This play is a fictional depiction of MLK’s final evening on Earth, set in Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, the night before his assassination. 

  • Selma (2014 Film)

A historical drama, Selma follows MLK during the Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches in 1965. Directed by the fabulous Ava DuVernay, this is a must watch.

  • I Am MLK Jr. (2018 Documentary)

I Am MLK Jr. covers the life and legacy of MLK through his most well-known events, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Birmingham Campaign, March on Washington, Selma Movement and assassination.

  • Legacy of Love (2020 Documentary)

For a lighter watch, Legacy of Love follows the relationship between MLK and Coretta Scott King.


His Legacy

MLK changed the world as it relates to U.S. race relations – but his fruitful efforts also worked to lift up Black creators, from artists and singers to playwrights, actors and writers. Even more, his actions and words opened up conversations about inclusion and diversity for all minority groups in the country. 

Devoid of divisiveness, MLK succeeded in his mission through kindness, non-violence, and love: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. 

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