Martin Luther King Jr. Man on a Mission

LiveAuctionTalk: by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

“Dear God, why?” -- Martin Luther King Jr.

In the basement of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church on Sept. 15, 1963 five young girls slipped out of their Sunday-school lesson to prepare for a youth service happening later.

At 10:22 A.M., a bomb ripped through the wall of the lounge where the girls readied. A white stale-smelling fog filled the room. Glass flew out of the church’s stained glass windows. Shattered brick, stone and glass covered everything. The blast crushed nearby cars like toys and blew out windows blocks away.

“It seemed like the whole world was shaking,” said one victim’s mother.

Dressed in their Sunday best four girls ages 11-14 lay motionless in the basement--killed by Klansmen’s dynamite. Fifteen people were injured.

“Mama, where is God,” said one little boy as he raced out of the building.

It was a revenge killing for black disobedience.

The church and the bombing turned out to be a landmark event in the civil rights movement. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., declared that dynamite, dogs, injunctions, and water hoses would no longer short circuit the movement. The civil rights revolution would be carried to the streets.

At the joint funeral for three of the girls King declared they didn’t die in vain. He predicted they would live on as reminders of America’s failure to address racism.

“We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system…which produced the murders,” he said. King called the girls martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and dignity.

Two months later when King heard John Kennedy had been assassinated his wife Coretta said he got quiet.

“This is what is going to happen to me,” he told her.

After the Birmingham bombing the Klan began to lose its supporters in Alabama as the local economy tanked in the wake of civil rights disturbances. The FBI identified five chief bombing suspects within weeks. Three of the suspects were later prosecuted and two others died without being charged.

We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system…which produced the murders.
— Marting Luther King Jr.

“We must bring the reality of our situation to the nation,” said Prathia Hall in 1964, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee staff member. “Bring our blood to the White House door. If we die here, it’s the whole society which has pulled the trigger by its silence.”

The civil rights movement was becoming a national issue. Leaders were ready to make major shifts in policy.

“We have talked long enough in this country about rights,” Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson said. “We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter—and to write it in books of law.”

Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A year later, he signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

On March 28, 2019, Swann Galleries featured a selection of Martin Luther King Jr. items in its Printed & Manuscript African American sale.

Here are some current values.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Felt Banner; We Shall Overcome; illustrated; circa 1968; 18 ¼ inches by 12 inches; $406.

Poster; A filmed Record from Montgomery to Memphis; 1970; 41 inches by 27 inches; $975.

Printed Flyer; Freedom Day…Come March with Dr. King; lead up to famed March from Selma to Montgomery; 1965; 8 ½ inches by 5 ¼ inches; $1,430.

Advertising Poster; for benefit concert featuring King and Aretha Franklin; letterpress in red and blue; 1967; 17 ¼ inches by 22 inches; $1,750.

Why We Can’t Wait; King’s reflections on his 1963 Birmingham campaign; including text of his “Letters from Birmingham Jail; signed and inscribed; 1964; $8,750.

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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