Eye On KELOLAND: The art of protest

Eye on KELOLAND

SIOUX FALLS, SD (KELO) — A Sioux Falls artist says he’s both proud, yet surprised, that his sculpture has become a focal point in some of the recent protests in the city over the death of George Floyd. Porter Williams created the bronze statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. located in downtown Sioux Falls. That statue has become the meeting place for some of the Black Lives Matter protests in the city.

Porter Williams feels a sense of reverence whenever he visits his Martin Luther King statue in Sioux Falls.

“This area around Van Eps Park is really kind of sacred ground as far as African-Americans in Sioux Falls,” Williams said.

The life-size sculpture of King is Williams’ tribute to the civil rights icon who stayed in this very spot during his visit to Sioux Falls back in 1961. Capturing the essence of King was sometimes beyond Williams’ grasp.

“First, I had his hand up in the air and my wife so, oh, no! That’s like Hitler and I had to take his hand and re-do it,” Williams said.

“One, two, three,”

Williams unveiled his sculpture on MLK Day back in January. He anticipated the statue would draw people to Van Eps Park during future commemorations of Dr. King. He never expected what would happen just a few months later.

“And when I turned the corner and looked down at the park, and seen all those people, I was just amazed,” Williams said.

To Williams surprise, he saw thousands of protesters gathered by his statue to call for racial justice following the death of George Floyd.

“I’m still in awe of what happened. And to look and see young white people involved as much as they were,” Williams said.

Williams is proud that his MLK statue has attracted activists calling for an end to police brutality. Williams says there were times, decades ago, when he, too, was roughed-up by officers. Williams moved to Sioux Falls from Kansas back in 1956, during the era of Jim Crow, when black people were not welcome in white-owned businesses. Williams says, back then, he’d often try to test the limits of that style of segregation and that’s when the police would get involved.

“Going into bars and they would say, we don’t serve your kind and they would call police. And the police, back then, if they didn’t serve your kind you had to go to jail, well, the majority of time, I went to jail,” Williams said.

Williams says local law enforcement today is far more professional and treats minorities with a great deal of respect. Yet he hopes his sculpture will inspire others to speak out against racial injustice, wherever, and whenever it may occur.

“It’s their future. If African-Americans are going to grow in Sioux Falls, you can look forward to them carrying on the tradition of Martin Luther King,” Williams said.

Williams describes himself as a self-taught sculptor. But he credits retired Augustana art professor Steve Thomas with helping fuel his passion to create.

“Art is part of life and when you use art to learn, then, I think you got it right, don’t you,” Thomas said.

“Well, I did the best I could,” Williams said.

“Oh golly, you did,” Thomas said.

Williams can now gaze upon his sculpture with hope that young people in the community will carry on the work of Dr. King. But unlike Williams’ completed piece of art, striving for social justice and racial equality remains a work in progress.

“Sioux Falls, with their conservative values and interests and everything might as well get used to it, there’s a new generation, and they’re coming along fast,” Williams said.

Williams says the rioting that occurred at The Empire Mall was out-of-character for the local minority community.

While many people have compared today’s protests with the Civil Rights movement led by King back in the 1960s, Williams believes there are very few similarities. He says it was far more violent during the sixties, when officers routinely unleashed canines on demonstrators and sprayed them with fire hoses.

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