Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

When the Montgomery Bus Boycott launched, Dr. Martin Luther King was only 26 years old and new to the city. He was selected to lead the newly established Montgomery Improvement Association, which guided the boycott and mounted the legal challenge to segregated buses. Artist Burton Silverman captured this picture of him in the courtroom listening attentively to testimony.

In 1956, Silverman and his fellow New York artist Harvey Dinnerstein traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, to record the Montgomery Bus Boycott, initiated when Rosa Parks, an African American woman, refused to give up her seat to a white man on the racially segregated city bus system. The artists explained their decision to head to Montgomery: “Our decision to record the events, as artists, was motivated in part by the virtual absence of photographic recording of the Boycott. We felt that this was the first real opportunity to show the efficacy of the artist’s eye in evoking the emotional as well as factual realities of an important human event.”

Working primarily with pencils, together, Silverman and Dinnerstein made over 90 reportorial drawings of the activities and people involved in the boycott. The drawings are lively and intimate records of a historical event, rather than carefully composed illustrations. They reflect the artists’ positions as outsiders—they were white, Northern artists—working quickly on the spot, but also their empathy for the community.

A few of these drawings were published, and about half of them joined DelArt’s collection in 1994. The Museum’s illustrations of the boycott have been exhibited in our galleries and at other museums, including, most recently, in the exhibition Imprinted: Illustrating Race at the Norman Rockwell Museum.

Heather Campbell Coyle
Curator of American Art

Image: Courtroom, Montgomery / Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and attorney listening to testimony, 1956. Burton Philip Silverman (born 1928). Graphite on paper, composition: 9 1/16 × 9 inches, sheet: 9 3/4 × 9 15/16 inches. Delaware Art Museum, Gift of the Robert Lehman Foundation Inc., 1994. © Burton Philip Silverman/ VAGA for ARS, New York, NY.