Something Has to Happen
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Momentum of His Movement
January 17, 2022 8:30 am
On my first day working at Manchester Bidwell Corporation, the Director of Communications gave me a dizzying tour of its sprawling campus. To say it was a sensory overload would be an understatement— the flurry of new faces, winding corridors, useful organizational anecdotes, and vivid artwork left me inspired, slightly anxious about the role I would play in this institution, and deeply confused as to where I had parked my car.
To punctuate our jaunt around the building, I saw for the first time what would quickly become a familiar sight; Countdown to Eternity, a photo series documenting the final days of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. At the time of writing, I learned that about a month prior to my start date, the photographer of this collection, Ben Fernandez, passed away at the age of 84.
In a 2012 interview with PhotoPhilanthropy, Fernandez stated, “A journalist is someone that writes and talks about photography. I live it. Basically I live it […] something has to happen in order for me to want to take the pictures, because I don’t read or write. I live.” With this philosophy towards his body of work, it must have been a combination of providence and professional shrewdness that he spent much of 1967 and early 1968 in the gravity of Dr. King’s orbit.
Something certainly is happening in the permanent collection of photos that adorn the second story hallway of 1815 Metropolitan Street; we see Dr. King’s collected yet booming presence delivering a speech at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in New York City and the bustle of supporters, advisors, and security personnel enveloping him en route to the United Nations. We also see quiet moments that remind us of his humanity, like supper around the King family dining room table and playing catch with his children in their back yard, his back arched away from the camera while lobbing the ball to his son.
As we reach the end of the long corridor, the focus shifts from Dr. King to his friends, colleagues, and admirers—some with their faces flushed with grief, others stoically attempting to grasp what was and remains incomprehensible. A crowd photo taken at the Atlanta funeral service is cropped by the frame, implying a sea of mourners stretching infinitely beyond the corners of the eye. And somewhere in that boundless, global congregation hundreds of miles away was a young Bill Strickland.
It’s no secret that the life and death of Dr. King had a profound effect on the founder of Manchester Bidwell Corporation. The events of 1968 (in addition to the mentorship of his ceramics teacher, Frank Ross) were one of the catalysts that led the then freshman at the University of Pittsburgh to reflect on what he could do to help heal his grieving neighborhood. “I wanted to do something for those kids,” Strickland wrote in his book Making the Impossible Possible, “but I had no experience as a social worker, teacher… All I knew was clay and what had it done for me.” With some help from local Episcopalian churches, he secured, cleaned, and painted a row home and stocked the space with pottery wheels and clay. Through Dr. Martin Luther King’s call to civic action, the seeds of Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild were sewn.
The outstanding effect one person can have on their community, whether it be a grand orator like Dr. King or simply a compassionate teacher in the right place at the right time, is the lifeblood of Manchester Bidwell Corporation. At first glance, Countdown to Eternity seemed to serve as somber reminder of what we lost on April 4, 1968. Now, after almost a year with this incredible organization, I instead see it as a source of inspiration; the passing of the torch from one generation to the next, doing the work, beautifying classrooms, empowering individuals.
Earlier this year, the Erie Center of Arts and Technology opened its doors in my hometown two hours north of Pittsburgh. As with every new center inspired by our model, we lent a traveling copy of Ben Fernandez’s collection to decorate their new, state-of-the-art building. This tradition stands as a testament to the life and times of Dr. King and the domino effect one man’s dream can have on the world— a reminder that 53 years later, something is still happening.