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A View of the Dream: The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Portrait Project

This blog post is adapted from research and quotes compiled by Sababu C. Norris, friend of the archives and graduate of Indiana University (MA ’82). Norris was a key part of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. portrait initiative, and his research and firsthand recollections of this ambitious project, involving the entire Greek system, were invaluable to the construction of this blog. A number of outstanding IU alumni who served as student leaders for the initiative also provided related materials from their individual archives. Key supporters throughout the MLK initiative included former IU administrators Dr. Michael V. W. Gordon, Dr. Richard McKaig, Dr. Joseph Russell, Dr. Victor Boschini, and Dr. Herman B Wells.

In 1986, the Indiana University (IU) student body was made up of around 32,450 students with 1,213 Black students enrolled; IU’s 32 fraternities and 23 sororities had a combined membership of close to 5,000. The Office of Student Activities, housed in the Indiana Memorial Union, had worked for years to bring the campus’ Black and white fraternities and sororities closer together.

That fall, a new graduate student, Sababu C. Norris, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, joined the Student Activities Office as Minority Student Program Advisor and proposed the idea for a Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. art project. His vision included commissioning an artist to paint an interpretive portrait of Dr. King, which would be displayed on the IU campus. The painting’s debut would also be celebrated with an unveiling ceremony and an MLK poetry contest, with the winning poem engraved on a plaque alongside the portrait.

The Office of Student Activities knew this project would require campus-wide student support. Students Stephen Day (Interfraternity Council/IFC VP for Financial Affairs), and Laura Steinfeld (President of the Panhellenic Association/PA) learned of the proposal and immediately became enthusiastically involved. Both were already passionate about inter-Greek collaboration and had laid the groundwork to create a VP position in their respective governance systems to facilitate predominately Black fraternities and sororities being part of the Greek system’s overall governance.

Thanks to Stephen and Laura, the project became a cross-chapter Greek-Letter student-led initiative and quickly found leadership support and involvement from the Black Greek Council and the entire campus. LaTrelle Miller, President of Delta Sigma Theta, and Valerie Ortique, Vice President of Alpha Kappa Alpha, stepped up to co-chair the project. Damita Ligon, a member of Zeta Phi Beta, volunteered to coordinate the poetry contest.

These student leaders took their roles seriously and spent the next few months leading planning sessions, putting together committees, fundraising and event planning, searching for the perfect portrait artist and contest-winning poem, corresponding and coordinating, and negotiating with campus leaders and administrators. Several engaging activities were designed to both promote the main event and to encourage the development of cross-cultural student relationships. Examples were the MLK Greek Olympics, where students from different chapters came together to form teams, and a Miss-A-Meal experience that promoted students’ awareness and contributed to fundraising.

Meet the Artist: Ashley Ward, 1959 – 1994

The committee’s artist search continued until they finally found the perfect fit—Fine Arts student Ashley Ward (MA ’91).

Close up image of artist Ashley Ward working on MLK painting.
Ashley Ward, photo by Annaleese Poorman; IU Archives Accession 2023/019

Ward, a native of Durban, South Africa, came to IU in 1985 pursuing a PhD in African Art History. He received numerous awards, and in 1982, was the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship. Ward wished to help end the inequities of apartheid through his work, much of which reflected the oppression and struggles faced by Africa’s Black women. His work was shown in both the United States and South Africa, and he presented his exhibit “Outcry” in February 1987 at the IU Fine Arts Building.

Ward’s art was highlighted in ARTnews Magazine in March 1987. His portrait of King, specifically, was featured in the Neal-Marshall Alumni Club Newsletter in Spring 1987 and Indiana Alumni Magazine in April 1987.

A View of the Dream: The Unveiling

On February 11, 1987, after months of planning and preparation, it was finally time to unveil Ward’s portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. The excitement surrounding the event was no surprise—students across IU’s campus and Greek chapters had all put their hearts into making this project meaningful and impactful.

After witnessing their leadership and collaboration, the IU administration and Union Board invited Martin Luther King III, son of Martin Luther King, Jr., and member of Alpha Phi Alpha, as was his father, to attend and speak at the event in Alumni Hall. Dean of Students Dr. Michael V. W. Gordon, a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, was selected as Master of Ceremonies by IU’s Black Greek Council, Interfraternity Council, and Panhellenic Association.

Group gathered around MLK portrait
From left to right: Mario Soto, Sababu C. Norris, Laura Steinfeld, Keith Woodard, Martin Luther King III, Valerie Ortique, LaTrelle Miller, Damita Ligon, Sharon Mulroy, Ronald Nelson, Regina Miller, and artist Ashley Ward; IU Archives Accession 2023/019

During the ceremony, Dr. Gordon asked several distinguished audience guests to stand and be recognized. This included IU’s Dr. Herman C. Hudson, who created courses in Afro-American (AA) history, formed both the AA Studies Department and the Department of AA Affairs—for which he served as the first dean—and served as director of the AA Arts Institute. Also in attendance was Bloomington’s Mayor Tomilea Allison, who read a proclamation to commemorate the important occasion.

The All-Campus Men’s Chorus, directed by Gordon, opened the ceremony, and the poetry contest’s winning entry, “The Dreamer” by Glenn J. Rosswurm II, a member of Delta Chi, was interpreted by IU’s national award-winning orator and Theatre and Drama instructor Marilyn Norris. Then, at long last, the MLK portrait was unveiled by the event’s committee representatives, Laura Steinfeld and Valerie Ortique.

The Dreamer by Glenn J. Rosswurm II

On a January day, a dreamer was born
To a land stained with hatred and blighted with scorn;
A beautiful dreamer sent from heaven above
To heal a maimed nation with the power of love.

A visionary preacher, this was what he became,
He spoke of nonviolence, of peace in God’s name;
But his arduous journey had only begun –
The mountain top was distant, his work far from done.

He went down from the pulpit and into the street
To walk with his people on proud, weary feet;
They strode for their freedom, their God-given rights,
Led by the dreamer, their souls reached daylight.

His struggle for justice shone bright ’cross the nation,
A beacon of hope, a light of creation;
The dreamer marched on, oblivious to fear,
He dreamt of the mountain top and sensed it was near.

He dreamt on through the years, forging change all the way,
Until his tragic death that fateful Memphis day;
Free at last, free at least, his journey at its end,
The dreamer reached the mountain top, his soul now God’s to tend.

Though the dreamer has left us, his dream is not gone,
Its beauty still beckons, we must follow it on,
From our beloved Indiana let freedom ring,
And toll forevermore the praise of Martin Luther King.

After witnessing the unveiling, Martin Luther King III reflected on his father’s legacy in a speech entitled “A View of the Dream,” and the ceremony closed with another song performed by the Men’s Chorus.

Legacy and Publicity

The MLK Art Project received national attention when it appeared in JET, a then-weekly African American publication. It is believed that during the decades JET was published, its readership was close to two million.

From JET magazine article, image of MLK III with two students looking at portrait of MLK, Jr. Caption says: His Father's Image: Martin Luther King III (r) admires a portrait of his father, the late Martin Luther King, Jr., which now hangs in the Indiana Memorial Union building at Indiana University. At the dedication were (l-r) Valerie Ortique, co-chairman of IU's Martin Luther King Day observances and a senior at IU; and Stephen Day, president of the Interfraternity Council and a junior on campus. The portrait is 381/2" by 50".
The JET Magazine feature from March 30, 1987

IFC and PA’s new VP positions for predominately Black sororities and fraternities helped to strengthen the overarching Greek system’s involvement in the MLK initiative and future campus endeavors.

Student members of the centralized IU Black Student Union (BSU) supported the Greek Letter MLK Art Project, many being Greek Letter affiliates themselves. Some were even active in the Black Greek Council. This, and other campus life experiences, helped to inspired BSU’s later event called Umoja, Swahili for unity. This intra-campus conference represented IU’s then-11 residence halls, as each had a BSU, with the central BSU as the umbrella.

The 1986-1987 Indiana University MLK Project helped to address campus climate matters and inspired the student leaders to further become proud alumni, giving back, in a variety of ways, to their alma mater.

In 1992, thanks to the efforts of School of Music professor and former Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Dr. Michael V. W. Gordon, the first permanent office for the National Pan-Hellenic Council was established in Bloomington. This entity serves as “the collaborative body for nine [national] historically Black fraternities and sororities”, also known as the Divine Nine. 

For more information, please see the document Sababu Norris created commemorating this collaborative project, with assistance and input from friends and colleagues.

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