The sad story of Martin Luther King’s bust in Debrecen, Hungary

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a US federal holiday marking the birthday of MLK. It is observed on the third Monday of January each year, this year on January 20th.  King’s actual birthday is January 15th.

In order to understand Hungary’s deep-rooted and institutionalized racism here is the story of MLK’s bust in my birth-town Debrecen.

Martin Luther King Jr. bust in 1978 next to the Church.

The American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.    Ten years later on June 16, 1978 Hungary’s Communist regime invited his father Martin Luther King Sr., to visit Debrecen, Hungary.  A modern Calvinist Church was inaugurated and planned to be named after his son.  Next to the Church a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. was installed.

New Calvinist Church, Debrecen 1978 – Supposed to be named after Martin Luther King Jr.

In the following years things changed in Debrecen.  Hungary’s and the city’s political mood turned right-wing and MLK was no longer popular.  The Church decided not to take his name, the bust was damaged, white paint poured over it and a swastika painted at the bottom of the column.

The Hungarian Reformed (Calvinist) Church decided to remove the bust and many thought that it will be melted down.   Almost three decades later (!) the bust was discovered in one of the Church’s storage rooms.  The good Calvinists did not know what to do with it.

Later they had an idea.  MLK was a Baptist preacher so the Calvinists decided to give it to the local Baptist community.  The Baptist Congregation cleaned and restored it and now it is sitting in their Community Hall on Szappanos Street.

Martin Luther King Jr. bust today at the Baptist Community Hall in Debrecen.

A couple of years ago on a visit to the city, Baptist Pastor Albert Pető told me that he would open the room for me if I wanted to see MLK’s bust.

It is sad that Debrecen is still not ready to place the great Martin Luther King’s bust in a public square.  It is safer to keep it behind closed doors.

György Lázár

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