'We've been robbed.' Controversy reigns 37 years after statue unveiling

Jan 20, 2020

Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy was celebrated in Buffalo over the weekend ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. On Saturday, community leaders re-dedicated a statue in the park bearing his name. Despite the celebrations, controversy over the statue has reigned since the day of its unveiling.

Statue at Martin Luther King Jr, Park.
Credit Thomas O'Neil-White

Samuel Herbert recalled the day, 37 years ago, when an 8-foot tall statue in honor of Dr. King was unveiled at the park located on Buffalo’s East Side. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968.

“In 1983, when they had that unveiling,” he said. “I never forgot the disappointment in myself and hundreds of people standing around, I never forgot that Black woman’s voice when she yelled out that we’ve been robbed.”

After nearly 40 years, Herbert remains perplexed by what he believes to be misrepresentation by the committee who convened the statue.

“My position has always been that they fraudulently elicited citizen’s dollars by telling us that they’re going to build a statue of Reverend Martin Luther King,” he said. “And every one of us expected that statue to look like Reverend King. And for the last 35 years that distorted, black, shameful image, has been sitting in MLK Park.”

The controversy was picked up by national outlets two years ago when Herbert began soliciting signatures to have it replaced.

But the community leaders who advocated for the statue said it’s not about whether or not it is supposed to be a likeness of Dr. King.  

Clifford Bell
Credit Thomas O'Neil-White

Clifford Bell was on the original Martin Luther King Celebration Committee. He is at peace with the statue.

“Even today as one of the people responsible for it, I have no problem with people thinking it doesn’t look like King, or don’t like it, or disagree with it,” He said. “But it is also, with it being a sculpture, it’s a piece of art.”

Bell said Sculptor John Woodrow Wilson’s intention was to convey the struggles, conflicts and celebrations of African Americans. Wilson died in 2015 at the age of 95.

“That was the understanding of the committee that voted for it,” he said. “That wasn’t the intent of the Sculptor who designed the presentation. So, it’s a case of beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.”

Former Buffalo Common Council Member George Arthur met with King in 1967, the last time he spoke in Buffalo. Arthur said the bickering over the statue is contrary to King’s ideals.

“What it also does is divides the community, and especially the black community,” he said. “And we don’t need anyone or any group that’s going to divide us. We need those who are going to bring us together because, goodness knows, that with the struggle we can’t be divided if we’re going to conquer and move forward in the future.”

Herbert maintains he and many others were fooled. He has over 14-thousand signatures of people who would to see the statue change into a sculpture of King’s likeness. For now, there is no plan on changing the statue, although Herbert has petitioned the Buffalo Common Council to vote on the matter.