Even the 30-foot-tall statue of King, an early version of which prompted the Commission on Fine Arts to fret over its “confrontational” stance, imposing size and “Socialist Realist style,” is turned away from the main entrance. King, who was plenty confrontational in real life, now looks off to the southeast, toward where F.D.R. sits in his equally controversial wheelchair. But there was no symbolism intended in that, according to executive architect Ed Jackson Jr.
There are ample places to sit, and if the trees survive to maturity, there should be shade, too. Once inside the plaza, the view across the Tidal Basin is delightful, and from the outside, the two halves of the mountain frame views nicely. Thus, the mountain adds something that the Tidal Basin has never really had before: A gate, or front door, which invites you in. If there were better mass transit to this site between 17th and 23rd streets SW — where designated parking will be limited to handicap spots and buses — it would make an ideal start and end point for a loop walk around the basin come blossom time.
Like too many memorials, however, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is stuck uncomfortably between the conceptual and literal. The concept, originally developed by the San Francisco-based ROMA Design Group, focuses on the Mountain of Despair, two massive, roughly arch-shaped granite bookends, and the “Stone of Hope,” which contains a statue of King, carved by the Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin and shipped from Changsha, China.
The “stone” is meant to look as if it has been pulled out of the arch of the “mountain,” and is turned slightly so that visitors first encounter a quotation by King, “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” before they encounter King himself.
The stone of hope turns out to be derived from a rather violent allegory of political conflict and tribalism. The line is from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. It was apparently based on an image from the second book of Daniel, in which the prophet interprets one of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams. Nebuchadnezzar envisioned not a mountain, but a massive idol, or image, with a head of gold, arms of silver and thighs of brass. “As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces,” says Daniel, prophesying the downfall of the old order.