Art News

Denver Sculpture Honored Emmett Till Fifty Years Ago...but the City Gave It Up

Denver's second Martin Luther King Jr. statue, without Emmett Till.
Denver's second Martin Luther King Jr. statue, without Emmett Till. Ken Hamblin III
On October 21, a towering bronze sculpture honoring Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old Chicago boy who was lynched for daring to talk to a white woman on a trip to the South in 1955, was dedicated in Greenwood, Mississippi, forty miles from where Till was kidnapped, then tortured and killed by two white men who were acquitted of murder in under two hours by an all-white jury.

While that new statue and Till, a just-released movie that focuses on the boy's mother, have garnered headlines across the country, for a long time the only physical monument to Till was in Denver.

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Ed Rose's "King and Companion" honored Emmett Till.
Library of Congress
Fifty years ago, Denver bowling alley owner Herman Hamilton, who was nine years old when Till was murdered, came up with the idea of a statue that would connect Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with Till. He worked with budding sculptor Ed Rose on a proposal to create the statue made of sheet metal and bronze, "King and Companion," which was erected in City Park in 1976 as a U.S. Bicentennial project. But from the start, the piece was the focus of controversy — critics fretted that King's head was too big, funders refused to pay for the statue, and Rose had to sue to be compensated for his work.

Finally, renowned Denver-based sculptor Ed Dwight was given a million-dollar contract to create a replacement sculpture of King for Civic Center Park that placed the civil rights leader on top of a three-layer pedestal bearing bronze representations of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Mahatma Gandhi and Rosa Parks. "King and Companion" was removed to make room for the new piece, which was unveiled in the Esplanade in 2003. (Ironically, Dwight was snubbed for the commission to create the King sculpture for the memorial in Washington, D.C., which went to a Chinese artist.)

After first offering the spare statue to local schools, Denver finally donated "King and Companion" to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Center and Museum in Pueblo. It was vandalized soon after it was installed, then rededicated in a park by the center in 2005, even as the FBI and the Department of Justice reopened the investigation into Till's death.

When the center closed, the statue was put in storage. It was reinstalled in 2017, outside the building that was once an orphanage for Black children, and is today occupied by the Friendly Harbor Community Center in Pueblo. And it was defaced again, during the George Floyd protests in 2020.

The damage was repaired, and the "King and Companion" statue still stands in Pueblo today — the country's original homage to Emmett Till.
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Contact: Patricia Calhoun

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