Push to replace bust in MLK Park underway, but some say keep it

Jan 15, 2018

Local community activists have formally launched their petition drive to remove and replace a large bronze bust that has stood in Buffalo's Martin Luther King Park since 1983. They demand it be replaced by a sculpture that more accurately portrays the civil rights leader's likeness. But not everyone in the local African-American community wants to see the existing bust removed.

Samuel Herbert and three of his colleagues stood in front of the memorial, located in the park off Fillmore Avenue, explaining that those who approved the sculpture 35 years ago made a mistake. The bust, they complain, looks like nothing like the slain civil rights leader, while other local monuments and those in Washington D.C. provide a more accurate portrayal of those being honored.

The bronze bust in Buffalo's Martin Luther King Park is seen by many in the African-American community as unacceptable because, they insist, it bears no resemblance to the slain civil rights leader. Others say the bust was intended to be a symbol of the everyday black man and his struggle.
Credit Michael Mroziak, WBFO

"This is Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Park. The only one in Erie County," said Herbert. "We want a statue that looks identically, all physical characteristics of Dr. King to be exact."

The bust was designed by the late John Woodrow Wilson, who died in 2015. His piece is described as a symbol of the black man and his struggle. Herbert and his peers find that unacceptable.

"We will live to see this mistake corrected," Herbert said. "No more symbolism. We want realism."

Their petition seeks thousands of signatures in support of an effort that will remove the bust. melt down the metal and reforge it into a closer likeness of Dr. King. 

Herbert said they intend to hire the same artist who created the King sculpture at his national memorial in Washington D.C. That artist, whom Herbert did not identify by name, is Lei Yixin.

Not all within the African-American community, though, are opposed to the bust. Shortly after petitioners left, Mark Dabney walked over to it and expressed his appreciation of it. The Buffalo man, who identified himself as an art enthusiast, finds the symbolism fitting. When asked about those who take exception to the bust, Dabney said the man portrayed is anything but generic.

"That's the image of a man working, providing for his family," he said. "That's not generic. That's a working man. Do you see the power in the sculpture? I see the power in the his face. I don't see his head bloodied or embowed." 

Dabney said Wilson, the designer, was the greatest draftsman of the Works Progress Administration period of the late 1930s and early 1940s. He suggested not knowing who he was or the value of his works are "a shame."