August 28, 2012 4:00 AM EDT

Photographer Camilo José Vergara has spent his career photographing the poorest and most segregated communities in urban America. As part of this work, Vergara has spent the last 30 years documenting murals and signs, many of them including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in cities across the U.S. Vergara’s unique visual record draws distinct categories of how Dr. King’s likeness appears in these hand-painted tributes: as the “everyman,” a mythic figure, defaced, with company in African American and Latino pantheons and, since 2009, alongside President Barack Obama. Here, Vergara writes for LightBox about the role these images play in American culture.

In America’s inner cities, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a popular subject of street art. Since the 1970’s, I have documented many of these hand-painted images of Dr. King along the streets and alleys of cities from New York and Los Angeles to Chicago and Detroit. Portraits of the slain civil rights leader appear on liquor stores, barbershops and fast food restaurants. Often Dr. King’s famous pronouncement, “I have a dream,” accompanies his image on the wall.

I didn’t set out to intentionally document murals and signs—rather, I found one and photographed it, then another, and soon I had a unique, well defined collection of images of Dr. King. And in talking to artists and storekeepers, I learned that these folk images expressed the way inner-city residents saw him.

First-generation college students—undergraduates whose parents did not attend university—have reason to be proud. They’ve made it, against daunting odds. But once they get on campus, many of these individuals struggle. First-generation students “are more likely to encounter academic, financial, professional, cultural and emotional difficulties than are students whose parents attended college,” writes Teresa Heinz Housel, an associate professor of communication at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, who studies this population (and was herself the first in her family to attend college). More than a quarter of low-income first-generation college students leave after their first year, and 89 percent fail to graduate within six years. The number of these students is growing—nearly one in three entering freshmen in the U.S. is a first-generation student—and so is interest in helping them succeed. The practices researchers have identified can be useful for all of us embarking on endeavors for which our background and experience have not prepared us. First: Know what you don’t know. First-generation students are often not prepared for university-level work — but they believe otherwise, reports Karen Boden, a researcher at Azusa Pacific University in California. Her study of first-generation Latino students, published in the Journal of Hispanic Higher Education in 2011, found that the participants perceived themselves as academically prepared, even though they frequently lack the skills and knowledge of the offspring of college-educated parents. Second: Figure out the unwritten rules. First-generation college students don’t simply lack the learning of their more privileged peers. They also arrive on campus without skills that other students take for granted, like knowing how to take notes and how to participate in class. Housel, coauthor of the report Faculty and First-Generation College Students: Bridging the Classroom Gap, notes that she, like many newcomers to university life, had to learn about “what conversational topics were appropriate for dinners with professors, how to make an airline reservation, what outfits were appropriate for professional interviews,” and other crucial but unaccustomed aspects of collegiate culture. Third: Make connections. First-generation students feel less support, both emotional and informational, from their parents than do continuing-generation students, reports Susan Sy, a professor of psychology at California State University, Fullerton, and her coauthors in a recent study published in the Journal of College Student Retention. In these cases, research shows that social connections, whether it’s a mentor who’s a professor in the student’s area of interest or a study group of students with similar backgrounds, are essential to academic success. Fourth: Embrace a new identity while preserving the old one. First-generation college students are often less involved in extracurricular activities than other students. They may be more likely to work outside jobs and to commute rather than live on campus, but they also may feel isolated or alienated by an unfamiliar university environment. Building bridges between home and school, old friends and new ones, is key to ensuring that the first generation to arrive at college departs there with diploma in hand. Annie Murphy Paul is the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter. Read more at her blog, where this post first appeared.
LEFT: April 12, 1968 issue of LIFE; Right: Avalon Auto Repair, Colden Avenue, Los Angeles, 2005

On the streets, Dr. King is represented in many ways–sometimes a statesman, other times a visionary, hero or martyr. Some paintings show Dr. King proud and thoughtful with his hand under his chin, while in others he looks friendly and compassionate, arms outstretched.

The sign painters and amateur artists who create these portraits use iconic photographs of Dr. King to model their subject. However, they often fall short of producing a perfect likeness. It is not uncommon for Dr. King to look Latino, Native American or Asian.

These portraits of Dr. King serve many purposes – from selling merchandise to encouraging a sense of security, identity and pride in poor communities. In Los Angeles, after the riots in 1992, many Latino shopkeepers painted Dr. King’s portrait on the façades of their businesses in the hope of deterring rioters.

In Black neighborhoods, portraits of Dr. King rarely include Caucasian or Latino figures. Rather, Dr. King is often accompanied by icons such as Malcolm X, who represents the embodiment of righteous anger, or other Black leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Harriet Tubman or Rosa Parks. And while Dr. King continues to be a popular icon, portraits of Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela have been steadily declining.

In group portraits, Dr. King takes center stage, often appearing physically larger than the rest. Since 2009, Dr. King has been painted with President Obama, a local resident explained the pairing saying: “Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther King could walk. Martin Luther King walked so Obama could run. Obama ran so we can all fly.”

In Latino neighborhoods, figures such as Pancho Villa, Benito Juarez and the Virgin of Guadalupe appear with Dr. King. In Detroit, among the ruins of what once was the city’s Chinatown, I found a memorial mural to Vincent Chin, a Chinese American auto-worker who was the victim of a race-motivated murder, in it Dr. King had Asian features. On a viaduct in Chicago’s South Side, I discovered a mural by the artist B. Walker that depicted Dr. King as a crucified saint. Clearly influenced by the Mexican muralist tradition, Walker painted Dr. King with pronounced Mexican-Indian features.

Reverend Nicolas Guerekoyame-Gbangou, president of the Evangelical Alliance of the Central African Republic, represents the Protestant community (52% of the population); Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, president of the Central African Republic Islamic Community, represents the Muslim community (15% of the population); and the Most Reverend Dieudonné Nzapalainga, Archbishop of Bangui, represents the Catholic Church (29% of the population). This week, these three leaders are hosting U.S. religious and political leaders for a mirror visit to CAR. The group includes representatives from the National Association of Evangelicals, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services, and the Islamic Society of North America, along with Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda Donald Koran and Stephen Rapp, Ambassador-at-large, Global Criminal Justice. We came to the United States of America almost a year since our country was set on fire, and still the flames of violence and vengeance are threatening to burn down a history of peace and coexistence in the Central African Republic. Today, security remains the rarest of commodities in our country as men, women and children fear the neighbours they grew up with. Yet, despite the horrific violence, hope endures. Hope that fires can be put out, wounds healed and a country rebuilt. As religious leaders whose congregations represent almost the entire country, we are clear as to both our moral responsibility and the steps needed to take us out of the darkness. Our voice is strong, our message is simple. We support newly elected President Catherine Samba-Panza and her urgent call for a UN peacekeeping operation as soon as possible to take over from the African and French troops currently on the ground. This UN Operation must be robust not only to help restore security, law and order in our country, but it must bring resources to help rebuild our country’s administration. Without strong institutions, we risk the repeat of cycles of violence. In meetings with US policymakers this past month we were asked repeatedly if ethnic cleansing is on the horizon. The answer is yes - if nothing more is done the violence will spiral into just that. We however reject the idea that this is a religious conflict. We, Muslims and Christians, grew up in peace. As children, we played together with the toys received at Christmas; we shared feasts of lamb at every Eid celebration. We went to the same schools, we learned and played together. Muslim, Christian, animist - we didn’t know the difference. As we celebrated each others’ customs, we embraced diversity. This richness was the foundation of our society. It was in the past and it could be again in the future. Yet in the present, our social fabric has eroded as the state failed and militias began to violently organise against each other, breeding a vicious cycle of revenge and reprisals. People have used religion as a pretext, a cover for their ambitions of power, but never has an Imam, a Bishop or a Pastor led the fighting or justified the killing. CAR has become the dustbin of Africa, home to rubbish expelled from elsewhere. Foreign mercenaries from neighbouring countries crossed our borders and looted, undeterred. Questions over Muslims supporting the gunmen aroused suspicions, and entire neighbourhoods, many of them Christian families, became resentful of the abuses. A simple case of flawed perceptions and misunderstandings, fed by anger over loss of relatives, the destruction of homes and lack of a better alternative due to chronic poverty and corruption, spun into violent rampage. We recognize the tremendous role that the US have done to provide life-saving assistance and the support of the US military to transport troops from other African countries to help restore stability. We are currently asking for partnership to help resolve the current crisis that has killed thousands of our countrymen, and to help us to eradicate the roots of this hatred and violence. We recognize that it will be long, hard work, but we need to help ensure that this does not happen again. While the root causes of the current conflict no doubt need to be addressed, the most immediate, pressing task is to have UN blue helmets on the ground to quell the violence and lead efforts to disarm the gangs that roam the land. It is a daunting task, and whilst the African and French troops currently on the ground have done a valiant job, security can only be made a reality if there are more and better equipped forces on the ground. Let us have no doubt that the remarkable work of African and French forces has saved the lives of thousands. However their efforts must be buttressed. If the UN is mandated to send peacekeepers, a larger number of troops can cover our vast country - which is almost the size of Texas - more effectively. Undoubtedly, this will require a higher financial contribution by the international community but these peacekeepers will be better equipped, meaning they can act more quickly to save lives. Recently, we witnessed African troop commanders being called on their cell phones to receive instructions to intervene. By the time soldiers arrive on the scene to disarm and protect civilians - often on foot because of too few vehicles - it is usually too late. A robust UN peacekeeping force will also allow neutral troops who are not party to the conflict to disarm and neutralise all armed groups, regardless of whether they are anti-Balaka, Seleka or members of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Since last March, thousands have died, over one million have fled their homes and over half the population has become dependent on aid. The best way to honour the fallen is find a sustainable peace and rebuild the country. Whilst we, as leaders of faith, work to heal the hearts of our nation, we look to the international community to support our fragile democracy. We need our American friends to help us rebuild our country so that our vision of a country where Central Africans live again in peace and harmony can be fulfilled.
Left: Francis Miller—LIFE; Right: Camilo José Vergara

Most murals and street portraits of Dr. King are ephemeral. Paint fades, businesses change hands and neighborhood demographics shift. Gradually, images reflecting the culture and values of poor communities are lost. Folk art museums collect objects, but seldom photographs. Museums, if they collect murals at all, are typically interested in commissioned works by professional artists. Often, my photographs are the only lasting record of these public works of art.

It is ironic that given Dr. King’s life-long struggle against segregation and poverty, his name and likeness have become one of the defining visual elements of the American ghetto, a place he worked his whole life to abolish. His dream of justice and equality for all seems as distant today, if not more so, than when he was alive.

I love the street images of Dr. King in all their earnest misrepresentations because of the hopes they embody. As I find and photograph them on my urban explorations, I am happy building my own Smithsonian—a permanent record of historical work on subject matter which is often overlooked, and without cataloguing, would otherwise be lost.

It is my strong belief that portraits such as these are rare and should have been part of the American memory, but it bothered me that they hadn’t been—a fact that is changing: On Jan. 18, the New York Historical Society is slated to open an exhibition of these images to celebrate what would have been Dr. King’s 84th birthday. After the closing of the exhibition, the photographs will become part of their permanent collection.

Camilo José Vergara is a 2002 MacArthur fellow whose books include American Ruins and How the Other Half Worships. You can see more of his photos on his web site and can contact him at camilojosev@gmail.com.

An exhibition of Vergara’s MLK photographs is on display at the New York Historical Society through May 5, 2013.

All photos courtesy Rose Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif.

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