The artist behind the Oval Office bust of MLK

Charles Alston contributed much to American culture

When Barack Obama entered office in 2009, one of the first changes he made to the oval office was the addition of Charles Henry Alston’s bronze bust of Martin Luther King Jr.

It replaced a bust of Winston Churchill, a copy, given to former president George Bush while the original was being restored. Alston’s bust of Martin Luther King recently made news again when newly appointed President Trump brought a bust of Winston Churchill back, and repositioned the bust of Martin Luther King behind a door. During the Obama administration the bronze bust by Alston sat on a console table that flanks the fireplace in the office, in direct view of the President while sitting at the Resolute desk. On the adjacent side of the fireplace rests a bronze sculpture of Abraham Lincoln. Undoubtedly, the two figures represented not only a long progression towards civil rights changes, but also a triumph of civil rights, joined together by Barack Obama, the United State’s first African American President. Obama acknowledged this significance, saying “as the first African American president it might be appropriate to have a bust of Dr. Martin Luther King in my office to remind me of all the hard work of a lot of people who would somehow allow me to have the privilege of holding this office.”

The artist behind the bronze sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. was also a man of many firsts. Charles Alston, was born in 1907 to a prominent Episcopalian family in Charlotte, North Carolina. Alston moved to New York to attend Colombia University, turning down a scholarship to Yale University, choosing towork as a bellhop at Pennsylvania Station while studying at the university. After finishing his MA at Colombia in 1930, Alston became the first African American supervisor of the Works Progress Administration of the Federal Art Project Commission, in 1950 became the first African American instructor at New York’s Art Student’s League, as well as teaching at the Museum of Modern Art. Alston’s oeuvre spans works from illustrations for Mademoiselle, Fortune, Scribner’s, Red Book, and Collier’s. Working for the U.S. office of war information, Alston became an illustrator for a weekly series “Negro Achievements” which circulated among many newspapers nationally. During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Alston and other like-minded artists formed the Spiral group in New York. Illustrating for publications, creating murals, teaching, and being engaged in the African American community were Alston’s hallmarks throughout his career.

Two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Alston was commissioned by Reverend Donald Harrington to create a bust for the price of $5,000.Later, the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institute paid Alston to create another bust, and this was later brought into the White House under Bill Clinton. Alston’s sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. at the White House was the first time an image of an African American was displayed in the public space. Although this important sculpture is currently marginalized by the Trump administration, we believe that a future president will restore Alston’s bronze bust to prominence.

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