By Kelly Nicholaides
for Montclair Local
Ten years ago, Montclair native Frank Gerard Godlewski floated the idea to use a copy of a model of Don Miller’s Martin Luther King Freedom mural—an iconic civil rights piece displayed at the Martin King, Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C. — to be installed somewhere in Montclair.
Miller painted the mural in his studio at 180 Bloomfield Ave. after being commissioned by the National Library in Washington, D.C. for an unveiling during the first observance of Dr. King’s birthday as a national holiday.
The goal was to get permission from the artist’s estate to make a copy of the model used to build the six-by-seven foot mural. Miller’s family in Pennsylvania did better. They donated the original model, a smaller version of the mural, to the Montclair Public Library in 2017.
On May 24, the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission honored the Rotary, the Millers and Godlewski for their collaborative effort to install the model at the Montclair Public Library.
“Much of Mr. Miller’s work reflected the spirit of the emerging civil rights movement. His magnum opus, the King Mural, depicts the life and work of Dr. King. Seven feet high and 56 feet long, it was commissioned by the library and was unveiled in January 1986 for the first observance of Dr. King’s birthday as a national holiday,” read Miller’s New York Times obituary in 1993.
After a decade of prodding, Godlewski, with help from the Rotary Club and the family of Don Miller, got the model installed on the second floor of the library.
“This model version of the mural can be used as a public learning tool for narrating black history. My involvement in getting it here was just a mission of social responsibility,” Godlewski said, adding that Miller’s other artwork is in homes around Montclair, as well as the Bethany Baptist Church and Newark Museum.
The artist’s son, Craig Miller, noted when the model was dedicated last year that his father had read 30 books on Martin Luther King, Jr. and researched the movement for a year before painting the mural.
“It was important to my father that the panels be historically accurate and emotionally moving,” Craig Miller said at the 2017 dedication.
But several of the historic figures portrayed in the mural came to Montclair to meet with Don Miller in person including Rosa Parks, the heroine of the Montgomery Bus Boycott; Dr. Caroline Goodman, the mother of the slain CORE worker Andrew Goodman; Reverend Ralph D. Abernathy; Dorothy Cotton from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Atlanta’s Mayor Andrew Young; Rev C.T. Vivian and Rev Wyatt Tee Walker.
Craig Miller served as his father’s assistant during the painting. At one point, he said his father threw a bucket of water on him to get a realistic view of what wet clothing looked like, in order to paint protesters being attacked with fire hoses. The great American pianist Don Shirley’s elegant music often served as an inspiration for the artist as he worked on the mural.
In August 1985, many of Dr. King’s closest associates and historic civil rights figures came to visit Miller to participate in an extraordinary taping for Montclair resident and TV personality Gil Noble’s ABC TV show, “Like It Is” with a special episode, “The Making of the King Mural”, using the mural as a backdrop. For five hours they shared their experiences with Dr. King and his important influence on their lives.
The artist’s widow, Judy Miller went on to serve as commissioner for the Governor’s report on the 1968 Newark Riots and Chair Emeritus of Seton Hall African American Studies.
Montclair has rich contributions to African-American history, but Godlewski feels that it’s disappearing or being “whitewashed.”
“Unfortunately, the black history landmarks like the Washington Street YMCA and the Aubrey Lewis house are being erased from our landscape for future generations,” Godlewski said. “This is extremely disheartening. These landmarks are important learning tools for the fine works of amazing people in our town and are disappearing from the community’s collective memory.”
He said the Montclair Historical Society tried to make a deal with the developer to remove the James Howe House (freed slave house) from its site at 364 Claremont and move it to behind the Crane House museum and interpret it as a slave house.
It took a decade to get Miller’s model mural up, thanks to Godlewski’s persistence. “My attempts with the Montclair High School failed in 2004. I organized a presentation/fundraiser with Judy Miller and the son Craig, but the MHS just let the ball drop. The board of education didn’t care, and neither did the art department at MSU. The Fourth Ward elected officials and the local NAACP don’t care much about fostering Montclair’s Black History legacy,” Godlewski said.
He noted that it wasn’t until he was asked to do a Black History lecture for the Rotary Club last year when members saw the mural in the presentation and offered to help.
Other awards distributed on May 24 were as follows:
• The Second Service Award went to the Montclair History Center and the Montclair Public Library for co-hosting the “Researching Your Home’s History” series with the historical commission.
• Jane Eliasof of the Montclair History Center won the Preservationist of the Year Award for her efforts to preserve elements of the town’s history.
• Two awardees were honored with Brick & Mortar Preservation awards for excellence in restoration and adaptive reuse of buildings. Local developer Timothy Bray used vintage photos of the vernacular Queen Anne home at 107 Claremont Ave, built in 1881, to complete his work. The partnership of Willow Street Partners and Sionas Architecture completed rehabilitation of the Georgian Inn – now The George Hotel – at 37 North Mountain Ave.