Earlier this year we told you about what might be the largest prosthetic leg ever built. Now comes news of what may be the world’s largest image of an amputee: a 70-foot-high mural of Jim Letherer, who made national headlines during the famous Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march of 1965. The mural occupies the side of the Commerce Center in downtown Saginaw, Michigan, where Letherer grew up and where he died in 2001. It was co-sponsored by the Great Mural Project and the Saginaw branch of the NAACP.
An above-knee amputee since childhood, Letherer walked the entire 54-mile distance from Selma to Montgomery on crutches and instantly became one of the event’s most recognizable figures. He remained a high-profile civil rights protestor throughout the 1960s, then resurfaced in the 1980s when he crutched across North America, coast to coast, to raise funds for cancer research.
A number of Letherer’s old friends told freelance reporter Janet Martineau about his lifelong commitment to helping others. “Jim traveled a lot in the US and South America and used his one leg to get attention for causes and other things,” one old buddy, Jim Gaertner, told Martineau. “He was dedicated to civil rights issues of the ‘60s. I think Jimmy would be happy, proud, and touched to be remembered like this in his hometown.” Terry Pruitt, president of the NAACP’s Saginaw chapter, told Martineau: “I had the great honor of meeting Jim in the early 1990’s. I found him to be a truly remarkable and committed individual.”
Local TV station WNEM had a lengthy report about the mural’s unveiling, which took place on June 30 and drew a sizeable crowd. The segment includes old CBS newsreel footage of Letherer that was filmed during the 1965 march, along with comments from Letherer’s niece and NAACP officials. There’s also a time-lapse sequence that shows the mural taking shape.
The artist, Kevin Burdick, is a prolific street painter from Flint, Michigan, whose large-scale images adorn buildings all over Michigan. Shortly before starting work on the Letherer mural, he created a mural depicting Dr. Martin Luther King, John Lewis, other other civil rights leaders whom Letherer marched with in 1965. “Jim Letherer’s story is larger than life, so he deserves this larger-than-life mural,” Burdick told local station WEYI. “Seeing the mural bring [people] to tears is the ultimate compliment, really. I just wanted his story to be told.” On his Instagram page, Burdick added: “He walked 54 miles in the Selma March of 1965 with one leg, on crutches, to show the world that if he can stand up for civil rights with one leg, we all can. Was an absolute honor to be a part of this project.”
This isn’t the first piece of of public art to commemorate Letherer’s achievements. A life-sized statue of him appears at the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Park, and there’s another statue along the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. But at 70 feet high, it’s got the largest impact. And it just might be the largest image of an amputee ever made.