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The painting, created by the late Miami artist Oscar Thomas, has since been hastily returned to its original location, but the controversy continues. Critics say the mural was handled carelessly and was damaged when it was rehung. And in moving Thomas's work without seeking advice from the public and from local artists, those critics charge, the MLK showed disrespect for the community it serves. "That's the most insensitive thing anybody could have done," exclaims an incredulous Sam Mason, who commissioned the artwork from Thomas when Mason was director of the MLK. "When I saw it was gone, I thought, What's going on here? That's our shrine. At least you could tell the community what your plans are."
The realization that this Liberty City icon had been moved to make way for a check-cashing business added a disturbing symbolism. Popular Cash Express hoped to put its front entrance at the spot where the artwork had hung and to move the mural into a position above its new front door. The juxtaposition of the painting and that particular business angered artist Marvin Weeks, who has restored a number of Thomas murals in Overtown and Liberty City. "That is not what Dr. King was about," Weeks says. Not only does the check-cashing business clash with King's vision, in Weeks's mind, but he also questions whether the nonprofit MLK should be leasing retail space to a check-cashing business in the first place.
The Martin Luther King Economic Development Corporation was founded in 1975 to develop black economic clout. In 1982 the organization bought the Martin Luther King Business Center, at 6116 NW Seventh Ave., as a way to help black-owned businesses get a foothold in the community. As a focal point for the new office and shopping plaza, Thomas created an imposing ten-by-twelve-foot, black-and-white mural of King in oil on three pieces of plywood sheeting. When the work was completed, the three pieces were butted together to form a whole, screwed on to a wooden base, and then affixed to a wall facing the southeast corner of NW Seventh Avenue and 62nd Street (which also carries the name Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard).
Since its installation in 1994, the photo-realistic painting has become a special work of art in Miami's African-American community. It also is among the favorite images photographers use to portray Liberty City. "This picture goes all around the world," notes graphic artist and MLK organization member Altine Baki. "It's in brochures. It's in books. It's in people's videotapes. This is a landmark in our community -- and in our community we don't have that many."
Adds Weeks: "That was the picture in the neighborhood."
Although Thomas and his mural have gained stature with age, the MLK has not enjoyed a similar fate. The organization has struggled over the past several years. Tenants have moved out of the commercial center, making it difficult for the MLK to keep up mortgage payments on the property. Internal strife led to an uprising among members in 1998, when they ousted the entire board of directors. Until the Chicago-based Popular Cash Express signed a lease to relocate its Liberty City store from across the street to the commercial center, the space had been vacant for three years, says Billy Hardemon, chairman of the MLK's board of directors.
When Popular Cash Express discussed remodeling their new store, the board saw an opportunity to accommodate a new tenant and preserve the mural. The MLK had discussed several years ago how to better protect the artwork, Hardemon says. Because the Thomas piece was located at eye-level, it has been subject to damage from exhaust fumes, splashes from puddles, and vandalism. (In the past seven years, though, it has never been defaced.)
As it considered relocating, Popular Cash Express thought the area where the Thomas mural hung would make an ideal front entrance to the business. The company got the MLK's approval to install a double glass-door entrance with a transom window and to move the picture above the entrance, flush with the roof of the building. To the board the plan sounded good. The painting would be more visible higher up, and it would be distanced from pedestrians and cars.
Neon Sign and Service Corporation pulled permits with the City of Miami to proceed. The company recommended framing the mural with a protective metal casing, says Dennis McHan, president and general manager of the sign company. Popular Cash Express would have spent about $4000 on the job, McHan estimates, adding that the painting "would have probably lasted longer and had far more visibility."
In early November the mural was removed while Popular Cash Express cut a hole for the new entrance into the masonry-block building. That's when all hell broke loose. Mason recalls almost crashing his car when he saw the artwork was missing. Weeks was similarly dismayed when he returned from an art show in Georgia and realized the mural was gone. Both quickly contacted the MLK.