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Gertrude Bell and Martin Luther King vie for BBC Icon title

Published on: 9 January 2019

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King and famed diplomat and archaeologist Gertrude Bell are featured in a new BBC series where members of the public vote for the 20th century’s greatest icon.

Towering figures

Icons is the BBC’s most ambitious history programme in more than a decade. It is split into seven categories and Martin Luther King who was awarded an honorary degree by Newcastle University, is shortlisted in the activist category; while Gertrude Bell, whose archive is held at the University, is included in Explorers.

The BBC says Icons will tell the definitive story of a century of change through the people who had the most impact on it. There are 28 shortlisted icons, carefully selected by a panel of experts and academics. The winner of each of the categories will go up against each other in the grand final, with the victor crowned the greatest person of the 20th century.

The competition is tough with other towering historical figures including Mahatma Ghandi, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein and Virginia Woolf in the running.

Picnic Party at Ctesiphon - seated party includes Gertrude Bell and King Faisal
Photograph of Gertrude Bell courtesy of the Gertrude Bell Archive

A remarkable woman

Gertrude Bell was a remarkable woman of many talents – a noted explorer, diplomat and archaeologist. Her archive is held at Newcastle University and last year, it was added to UNESCO’s International Memory of the World register – the documentary equivalent of becoming a World Heritage Site.

The archive, is a unique record of letters, diaries, and photographs by Bell, dating from 1871 to 1926. It is one of only a small number in the UK to be inscribed into the register. It is only the second university-held collection in the UK to feature.

With close to 10,000 unique items, the archive provides a record of the people and cultural contexts from multiple ethnic and religious groups living through the transition from the Ottoman Empire of the late 19th century to the period of the establishment of the modern Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi, and Jordanian states. The photographs preserve a precious record of these communities many of which have changed dramatically over the past century.

Bell continues to have a profound impact on the modern world through her legacy in the Middle East, especially in the formation of Iraq and resulting transformation of the region. Her personal perspective on the transitional period from the Ottoman Empire before World War I until 1926 provides unique, irreplaceable documentation of the formation of the Middle East and her instrumental role in that process.

Dr Mark Jackson, co-curator and guardian of the Gertrude Bell Photographic Archive at Newcastle University, said: The archive that Gertrude Bell created as an archaeologist while travelling in the Ottoman Empire before the First World War is now a priceless record of people and places that have changed so much over the past century.”

A force of history

In 1967, Newcastle University became the only UK university to honour Dr Martin Luther King Jr during his lifetime. He was made an Honorary Doctor of Civil Law and gave a powerful speech about the struggle for racial justice at the ceremony. Just five months later, the civil rights leader was dead, he had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

In 2017, the University celebrated the 50th anniversary of Dr King’s honorary degree with a year of events called Freedom City. It featured large-scale outdoor events, exhibitions, public art, musical performances and an education and academic programme paying tribute to Dr King’s passionate and moving acceptance speech. It culminated with the unveiling of a bronze statue of Dr King in the university’s King’s Quad.

Dr Ben Houston, Senior Lecturer in Modern American history at Newcastle University explains why Dr King deserves to win.

“While Martin Luther King is wrongly considered the only leader of the modern version of the black freedom struggle, his role as a force of history makes him a credible candidate for this title,” says Dr Houston. "Among the many reasons; his continuing, indeed enduring, relevance to the current age, the range of issues he spoke to which spanned far more broadly than just his focus on racial questions, the complex ways in which he led others to activism against one of history’s most intractable issues, and the broad import of his life and message to people around the world.

“As he said in Newcastle, ‘In honouring me today you not only honour me but you honour the hundreds and thousands of people with whom I have worked and with whom I have been associated in the struggle for racial justice.’ Surely that inspiration then and now is more iconic than being only a Great Man of History alone?”

Martin Luther King, at his honorary degree ceremony in 1967
Dr Martin Luther King at his honorary degree ceremony at Newcastle University in 1967

The episodes

The Explorers episode of Icons presented by Dermot O’Leary, will be broadcast on BBC Two on Wednesday 9 January. You can vote from 10pm on 9th January until 4pm on 10th January on the Icons websiteActivists, presented by Sanjeev Bhaskar, on Monday 21 January and then available on the BBC iplayer. The live final episode will be on air on Tuesday, 5 February.

 

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