In Memoriam - Art Shay

By Dr. Noelle N. Trent, 
Director of Interpretation, Collections & Education 

Nearly one month after his 96th birthday, April 28,  Chicago-based, Bronx-born photographer Art Shay passed away.  The name Art Shay may be unfamiliar, but his work is prominently featured in the museum’s newest exhibition MLK50: A Legacy Remembered.  I first became acquainted with Shay’s work, when his archivist Erica called me, and asked if the museum would be interested in a series of photographs he took when he was in Memphis during the aftermath of Dr. King’s death.  I was intrigued, and when I opened the image files I was astounded.  

A picture says a thousand words, and Shay’s work spoke volumes.  The photographs conveyed the flurry of emotions within a city wrestling with tragedy of King’s death.  What added to the photos’ complexity was that they were taken in color.  Shay’s artistry laid bare the unflinching truth of what was happening in Memphis.  The photos’ veracity would prove to be overwhelming for 1968 publishers, and the majority of the photos would remain unseen for decades.  

Without Shay’s photographs, MLK50: A Legacy Remembered would be a very different exhibition.  The written interpretation may have been the same, but visually it would be lacking. There is an artistry and realism that comes across in each of Shay’s photos.  Shay did more than document a historic moment, as an artist he compelled the viewer to feel the tension, and the myriad of emotions in each image.  

I never had the privilege to speaking with Art Shay directly.  He had intended to visit the museum earlier this month for the opening of the exhibition, but was unable to attend due to his illness.  He was excited that his work was featured in the museum.  We are honored that he allowed us to use his work to tell the story of April 1968. 

Through out his career, Art Shay traveled and photographed events around the world.  In talking with his archivist, he documented numerous moments in civil rights and human rights history.  If those photographs are nearly as powerful as those from Memphis, his work will continue to tell the story of the civil rights struggle for generations to come. 

Rest in Power Art Shay!

 

Art Shay's reflections on taking photos in Memphis in April 1968.

I was living in the midst of our nation’s history.

My war had ended with two atomic bangs and, before their echoes died, out came the whimpers and light on our own discontent. Flipping the calendar pages, as in a bad historic movie, our racial cancer appeared with Nazis wearing White Power armbands along with milder racists excluding Blacks from everything good in our society - houses, jobs, professions, neighborhoods, schools, theaters, the fronts of busses, water fountains. The cancer's first stages were climaxed by the assassinations of JFK, RFK and Martin Luther King, Jr.

I found myself covering this home-grown war. It became the job of photojournalists to document what was happening as we watched. Sent down by Life Magazine to Memphis the night of King’s death, I met Esquire Magazine journalist Garry Wills, since then a Pulitzer Prize and National Humanities Award winner, at the Lorraine Motel. In my rented car, Wills and I went to the police station to find out what was going on. The police said they were looking for King’s killer and I asked them if we could ride along. They didn’tmind.

Back at the police station, we were told King’s body was taken to the Lewis Funeral Home and they were working on the body to make it presentable to the public. We spent an eerie night in the mortuary, as the attendants labored to camouflage the bullet hole in King's head while the radio played King’s recording speeches. People lined up before dawn to see his body. Many of the stunned mourners who filed through the funeral home rued never having seen the man alive.

 

I left the funeral home to check in at the Time & Life Inc. desk which was at the Lorraine Motel. 100 yards away, King’s killer had shot through a telescopic gunsight while standing in the bathtub of a flop house. I talked the flop house owner and the FBI into letting me into the fatal bathroom after the FBI had gathered their evidence. The incriminating handprint, FBI dust still on it, was on the wall over the bathtub where the killer had leaned while sighting the motel balcony from the window.

At the march, silence was the order of the day. I photographed this solemn march from the press’s flat bed truck moving just ahead of the march. Swallowing her tears, Correta Scott King bravely led her family and the large crowd.

I was horrified to have to make these photos of King, a man I had known and admired when he was alive. I realized the significance of my photos at the time and hope they bring into focus these significant events for future generations.

— Art Shay December 8, 2017