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Performing artists to mark MLK’s legacy in virtual exhibition

FOREST PARK – In more than a century, the St. Louis Art Museum has collected statues, paintings and other works of art that powerfully show every emotion of humanity.

Beginning Monday, on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, the museum’s website will show works of art demonstrating the emotions African-Americans have when they cry, “Let my people go.”


Starting Monday, the 2021 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Celebration will feature the responses of area Black performing artists to three photos by Moneta Sleet Jr., the first African-American photographer to win a Pulitzer Prize.  

In reaction to one of the photos, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Coretta Scott King and daughter Bernice at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Joel P.E. King will perform a theatrical piece.

Coretta Scott King and daughter Bernice
Joel P. E. King performs “To Be There.” 







Heather Beal will dance a response to the second photo, “Dr. and Mrs. Martin Luther King Singing in the Rain during the March from Selma to Montgomery.

ABOVE: Heather Beal performs “Singing in the Rain” in response to Moneta Sleet Jr.’s photograph (LEFT), Dr. and Mrs. Martin Luther King Singing in the Rain during the March from Selma to Montgomery.

And Anita Jackson will sing in celebration of the third photograph, “Selma Marchers on Road to Montgomery.

Anita Jackson performs “None Will Give Us Freedom.”
Civil rights marchers on the road from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery.
Photo by Moneta Sleet Jr.
The St. Louis Art Museum has long offered exhibitions marking the King Day celebration. The practice changed with COVID-19 and led to the virtual event featuring Sleet’s work. 

“We had the body of work in our collection,” said Jessica Kennedy, Educator for Adult Learning at the art museum. “I agree, they are very powerful photographs, and the performances are equally moving.”

“Martin Luther King himself and his mission is very much at the core of the museum,” said Andrea Purnell, audience development manager in the Department of Diversity and Inclusion at the museum. “This idea of diversity for all is something that we’re extremely proud of.”

After COVID-19 struck, the museum felt strongly that this exhibition should continue in some form, Purnell said. Making it easier was the fact that each of the performers has a solo act. They take off their face masks only when they speak.

“The Moneta Sleet Jr. photos have some riveting Martin Luther King images we’re excited for the community to see reinterpreted in this way,” Purnell said. 

The media of dance, theater and song provide a different way to look at historical images, Purnell said. “This is all homegrown talent,” she added.

“In this, his legacy endures,” Purnell said. 

Moneta Sleet Jr.
Sleet, who was born in 1926, was long known for his photography of the struggle for racial equality, both in the United States and Africa.

From 1955 until his death in 1996, he took pictures for the Black magazine Ebony.

Sleet started taking pictures of King when the young minister organized a boycott in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955. Sleet kept following the civil rights leader until 1968, when he was one of the photographers at King’s funeral. His picture of King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and his young daughter at that funeral won a Pulitzer Prize.   

The Dana Brown Endowed Fund for Education and Community Programs supports the program.  People can see the program any time starting Monday, Jan. 18, at

Jim Merkel Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit

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