King the Iconic
January 18, 2012 by bryantsimon
I am a couple of days too late, I know. But I wanted to bring up, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his status as an icon. (Surely he has this status, right?) In his book Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon, Mark Kemp talks about the “devotional” quality of icons. Certainly this is true of King. Check out this image from the recently open King Memorial in DC. (What does this evoke? What other images is this quoting?)
Kemp also talks about how icons are “very elastic” and how they “transgress their original form, function, and context.” In King’s case, this often means freezing him in the famous and quotable moment of the “I Have a Dream” speech. This can mean not recognizing the full breath and depth of his politics and how they evolved in the last few years of his life. Penn history professor Tom Sugrue wrote a great piece a couple of years ago trying to pull back from King’s iconic status — a status often used to highlight the US’s ability to change and make good on democracy — to his everyday politics, to his actual words separate from his image. Appropriately enough, he called his essay, “Restoring King
In another King day essay by a historian, Oxford University Professor Stephen Tuck talked about the importance and resonance of King outside the US
. This points to another dimension of King and of icons — icons (even American icons) travel and as they do their meaning change morph and change.