Created by a husband-and-wife team, Jeffrey Varilla and Anna Koh-Varilla of Chicago, the sculpture portrays King in his doctoral robes—appropriate for an academic setting.
The effort to erect a statue of King began in 1987, when a group of University students formed the Martin Luther King Jr. Sculpture Foundation.
They approached UT President William Cunningham—who was supportive—and carried the idea to the Board of Regents. The regents authorized $150,000 to construct a pedestal, but left funding for the sculpture itself to the students.
For several years, fundraising efforts were inconsistent. It wasn’t until 1995 that a student referendum was introduced, requiring a $1 per-student fee each semester for four years to raise up to $500,000.
The referendum passed easily and received official approval by the Texas Legislature and the Board of Regents. A committee of four University administrators, four students, and a representative from the Austin community oversaw the project.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Sculpture Committee released a “Call for Artists,” an invitation for those with experience working with bronze and life-size sculpture to submit resumes and images of their work.
Five finalists were selected and each awarded a $5,000 honorarium to create a model of their proposed work. The submission of Jeffrey Varilla and Anna Koh-Varilla received the final contract, and the model is still on display in the Student Activities Center.
The likeness of the civil rights leader is only the second on a college campus. Morehouse College, King’s alma mater, unveiled the first in 1984.