Illinois lawmakers want to replace a small, weathered statue of Martin Luther King Jr. across the street from the State Capitol building in Springfield and put a new one in a more prominent area.
What to do with MLK’s statute is part of a broader discussion by a task force reviewing monuments in and around the Capitol. The group, which currently only comprises Illinois House members, is determining whether to recommend the removal of certain monuments to controversial historical figures and replace them with new statues.
The current MLK statue was first unveiled in 1988. Although originally displayed inside the statehouse in the Capitol rotunda, it was moved to the south Capitol grounds before being relocated to its current position in 1993 across Second Street, where MLK appears to gaze at the Capitol building.
Since that time, the monument has become badly weathered and critics of the statue say it does a poor job of capturing the likeness of the civil rights icon.
Jesse White — Illinois’ longest-serving and first Black Secretary of State — told the task force at its third meeting Wednesday that when he first saw the statue as a then-state representative, he didn’t even know who it was supposed to be.
“This gentleman [depicted in the statue] had his coat slung over his shoulder and he looked like a sharecropper,” White said. “Dr. King has never looked like that. He always was a dapper fellow who always had a suit and a tie on.”
White, who met King as a college student engaged in the Civil Rights movement and attended church where King was the pastor, already committed to contributing $5,000 of his own money to the project.
State Rep. Tim Butler (R-Springfield), who supports the construction of a new statue of King, suggested lawmakers may want to also consider alternative locations for the new monument.
“Dr. King gave a fairly famous speech at the [Illinois State] Armory in 1965 and to the AFL-CIO convention,” Butler said. “Could we envision something that would represent Dr. King's significant speech at the armory?”
A legislative resolution that was introduced but not voted on earlier this year called for the placement of a plaque at the Armory commemorating King’s speech on October 7, 1965.
Butler said certain statutes or regulations may prevent King from having a monument on the Capitol grounds since he did not spend a large portion of his life in Illinois, hence the suggestion for a secondary location.
However, State Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago), the chair of the taskforce, said lawmakers should not be constrained by any existing regulations.
“I want to remind Rep. Butler, the good thing about you and I and the rest of us on this committee, we make the laws,” Flowers joked. “The statue will be where we say it will be, period.”
The task force on Wednesday also heard from Noelle Trent of the National Civil Rights Museum. Trent noted that while he was no Illinois native, King did reside in Chicago for several months in 1966, and said that stint had a huge impact on the Civil Rights movement.
“Chicago is very critical for Dr. King,” Trent said. “It gave him a greater understanding of the issue of poverty within the United States.”
Trent explained King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had worked to establish the Chicago Freedom Movement which was meant to address racial segregation in the north, with a particular focus on housing discrimination.
“They also start[ed] Operation Breadbasket that was led by a very young Rev. Jesse Jackson, which is aimed at abolishing racist hiring practices aimed at companies working within Black neighborhoods,” Trent said. “This sort of change does not happen without confrontation...On August 5th, 1966, as Dr. King and other Black demonstrators were marching, they were met with hostility and objects were thrown at them. Dr. King is actually hit in the head with a rock.”
Chicago was the first city to name a street after King, and Illinois was the first state to recognize MLK day, Trent said.
Lawmakers plan to continue holding hearings on statehouse monuments at least through the summer, and even entertained the idea of taking a bipartisan “road trip” to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.