Arts Council exhibit chronicles last year of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life

NORWICH – On the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, the Chenango County Council of the Arts in Norwich presents “Countdown to Eternity,” a rare and intimate view of Dr. King from the archives of world renowned photographer Benedict J. Fernandez.

Through this series of more than 70 black and white photographs, viewers share public and personal aspects of Dr. King’s life including the tragedy and introspection of his immediate family at the time of his death.

One of the world’s best known advocates of non-violent change, Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia on Jan. 15, 1929. He was the grandson of the Reverend A.D. Williams, pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church and a founder of Atlanta’s NAACP chapter. As a student at Morehouse College, Crozen Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, and Boston University, Dr. King deepened his understanding of theological scholarship and Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent strategy of social change.

In 1967 King made his famous speech in front of the United Nations, calling the Viet Nam War a “racist” war. This soured his relations with President Lyndon Johnson and cost him the support of many white liberals.

Dr. King delivered his last speech during a bitter sanitation workers strike in Memphis. He admitted, “We’ve got some difficult days ahead, but it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountain top.” The following evening, April 4, 1968, he was assassinated. In 1986 his birthday became a Federal Holiday.

During the mid-60s, Ben Fernandez photographed throughout the streets of New York, becoming one of the most important street photographers of the time photographing a variety of socially significant events. Fernandez’ photographs of events and protest activities in the New York metropolitan area, as well as across the country, serve as a photographic diary of the nationwide protest movement of the 1960’s. Fernandez recognized the historical significance of the time and his role as photographer and recorder of events, which expanded from the Civil Rights Movement to the Women’s Movement and Gay Rights.

Fernandez’ powerful photographs of the last year of Dr. King’s life serve as an extraordinary account and visual testimony of a dedicated photojournalist who captured a period in this country’s history.

The photographs in this exhibition embody the personality behind the camera. Fernandez, like many photo documentarians, has become a visual historian and narrator of our times. These photographs were never collected into an exhibition during Dr. King’s lifetime, so any thoughts or impressions of them he might have had remain speculative. Forty years later they still speak to us with the same message intended when they were first taken – the documentation of the impact of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on this photographer and this country.

Benedict Fernandez is an educator as well as a photojournalist. He founded the degree granting photography department at the New School/Parsons School of Design in 1967 and remained the Department Chair for the next 20 years.

Fernandez has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts award; he is a Fulbright Scholar and Fellow in Photography at the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, D.C. Numerous books of his works have been published: “In Opposition: Images of American Dissent in the Sixties” – 1968; “Countdown to Eternity” 1993; “Protest” – American edition, “I Am a Man” – German edition 1996.

His work has been exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide and is included in the permanent collections, among others, of The Smithsonian, The National Portrait Gallery, The Corcoran Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, the University of Tokyo Library and the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.

Today Ben Fernandez is active with his exhibitions and lecture engagements all across the country. He spends his time between his home in upstate New York and his studio in New Jersey.

“Countdown to Eternity” is sponsored at the Chenango County Council of the Arts by the George and Elisabeth Mead Foundation and the Raymond Foundation. An opening reception will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday at the Council’s Mariea Brown and Raymond Loft Galleries, 27 West Main St., Norwich. The exhibit will run through Feb. 7. Admission is free. For gallery hours, contact the Council of the Arts at 336-2787 or

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