During our October vacation in Washington DC, Pam and I visited all of the memorials on the National Mall. The World War 2 memorial was new since our last visit in the 1990s, and it was quite impressive. Also new was the Martin Luther King memorial, which was dedicated in October 2011, just a year before.
I’m a great admirer of Martin Luther King. I’m an not an admirer of the MLK memorial.
The idea of a memorial to King was authorized in 1996, a groundbreaking was held in 2006, and building for the final project began in 2009.
The setting itself is beautiful, spanning four acres overlooking the Tidal Basin. As a bird flies, it’s between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. All of the other major monuments to people recognize presidents–Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt. The Martin Luther King Memorial is the only one recognizing a non-president. And I would consider it deserving. King was truly a transformative figure.
You enter the memorial through a stone “mountain.” The ends of the mountain are on either side of the gateway. The middle slice is located further in, and this slice bears a sculpture of King emerging from the stone. The granite slab says, “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” which is a line from the “I Have a Dream” speech. So you pass through the Mountain of Despair to reach the Stone of Hope. The sculpture of King, staring across the Tidal Basin, is 30 feet high; the statues of Jefferson and Lincoln are just 19 feet tall (though Lincoln is sitting).
Behind the Stone of Hope is a 450-foot wall containing 14 excerpts from some of King’s sermons and speeches. I read them all. They are good quotes, chosen to stress four primary messages of King: justice, democracy, hope, and love. That’s what I read later, anyway. As I read them that night, with darkness fast approaching, I saw two themes: justice, and the poor.
What struck me was that racial themes were totally missing. They chose not to include what is my favorite King quote, and perhaps his most famous: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
I suppose they wanted to focus on more timeless, universal themes (justice, democracy, hope love), which will continue to be issues long after racism is, uh…eliminated? I didn’t like it. King’s crusade was focused on issues of race and discrimination. I considered it a serious error to omit mention of these issues at a monument dedicated to his memory.
So that was one disappointment.
Another disappointment was reading that the King family received $800,000 in a licensing deal for permission to use King’s words and image in fundraising materials for the memorial. That’s scandalous.
And then there’s the sculpture itself.
First of all, it didn’t look like any photo I’ve seen of King.
Second, it looks like a white person (since they used white granite).
Third, the sculptor was Lei Yixin, an artist from China who had previously sculpted Mao Zedong. As it turns out, the Chinese government contributed $25 million to the $120 million project. So this major monument on the National Mall, recognizing an American, was Made in China. They even used Chinese white granite, which was probably mined by Chinese workers in unsafe conditions. Scandalous again.
So I was severely disappointed. The silly mountain metaphor. The use of Chinese materials and a Chinese sculptor. The out-of-proportion size of King’s figure. The lack of resemblance to King himself. The demeanor they gave him–serious, authoritative, and way too reminiscent of statues we’ve seen of dictators in other countries. What were they thinking?
I read that they considered using “water” as a metaphor, based on King’s words from the “Dream” speech “let justice run down like waters.” I like that idea. The concept called for using fountains, with sheets of water flowing over quotations in a meditative setting. But they went with the monstrous Stone of Hope.
Maybe I was being picky. Maybe most people come away from the monument inspired. I just found it severely lacking.Leave a comment