At This Point, MLK Memorial Needs a Fresh Start

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By Marc Fisher
Sunday, May 11, 2008

Martin Luther King was never an arms-folded kind of man. He was never one to tighten up against slings of opposition, never one to choose a cocky or grandiose pose.

Leaf through hundreds of photos of the man, and you see him standing before oceans of Americans, one arm raised to the sky, his mouth open in a call to unity. He reaches forward, rallying, cajoling, explaining. Or he is leaning in, head to head with Lyndon Johnson, and you can almost hear King, the gentle voice, the rock-hard logic.

Nowhere do I find King depicted the way a sculptor in China is interpreting him for the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial that is supposed to be built at the Tidal Basin next year. Nowhere but in this proposed arms-crossed sculpture is King seen in the arrogant stance of a dictator, clad in a boxy suit, with an impassive, unapproachable mien, looking more like an East Bloc Politburo member than an inspirational, transformational preacher who won a war armed with nothing but truth and words.

The road to the King memorial has been difficult from the start. It has taken decades to raise the money, select the site and create the design. But of all the battles over how to remember King, this latest round is the most disturbing. As work continues in China on a model of the 28-foot-tall statue, the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts has issued a harshly worded denunciation of the image of King that is being carved out of foreign granite.

Far from the original concept of a King who is "dynamic in stance, meditative in character," the sculpture now being built "features a stiffly frontal image, static in pose, confrontational in character," says a letter from the commission secretary, Thomas Luebke.

The federal panel wants the sculpture reworked "to return to a more sympathetic idea." But the government's arbiters of art seek far too limited a fix. The problem is not merely one of artistic vision. The centerpiece of the memorial, known as the Stone of Hope, has gone completely off the rails. The solution is to start over.

It is simply wrong to have outsourced both the sculpting and quarrying of the granite -- and especially to China, a country whose government during King's lifetime called him a "reactionary running dog" for his advocacy of nonviolent protest. China even now stands firmly against King's vision of an open, free society in which power flows from below and people are cherished as individuals, not defined by group identity.

Harry Johnson, president of the King Memorial Foundation, has argued that hiring a sculptor from China, even if he is a Communist Party member whose works include tributes to Mao Zedong, is "no different from the Houston Rockets working with Yao Ming, or Jackie Chan in Hollywood movies. We don't want to take the stand to say African Americans can only work on this project."

But those analogies don't work: Yao and Chan came here to display their special talents, whereas the sculptor, Lei Yixin, is building the King statue in his Changsha, China, studio with a staff of 10 other Chinese sculptors, working with Chinese granite on a memorial to a great American figure for display on our country's most prominent showcase of historic symbols and stories.

It is not jingoism but rather a healthy sense of pride and loyalty that mandates that this memorial be designed and executed by those who live in the country that King so inspired and changed.

In Barre, Vt., craftsmen whose roots in stonework go back centuries have provided raw materials and artistry to the World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War memorials. No one ever gave those workers a shot at making the King sculpture.

"We've got incredibly talented sculptors who work wonders with granite," says John Castaldo, executive director of the Barre Granite Association. "Our manufacturers have said from the start that this design is not a representation of King, that it's all wrong."

Only after legislators protested the outsourcing did the Memorial Foundation agree to give some work to New England artisans. But that work is limited to other parts of the memorial, and still no Vermont granite firm has heard from the foundation, Castaldo says.

The Fine Arts Commission's latest critique "signifies that we were right as far as the Chinese's ability to create a likeness of Dr. King," says Gilbert Young, an Atlanta sculptor who founded the "King Is Ours" protest movement. Young's online petition against the choice of Lei specifies that an African American artist should get the job. But when I asked Young about that, he backed away, saying, "I would have no complaints if this was done in the United States by anyone who knows our culture, like the Asian woman who designed the Vietnam Wall."

So far, opposition to outsourcing the sculpture has come mainly from African Americans and the U.S. granite industry. "White people are afraid to attack the monument because they fear they'll be perceived as racist," Young says. "But Dr. King challenged us to talk about race without making accusations of wrongdoing."

King's message is universal, but his story is American. A memorial on the Mall requires American designers and artists to confront his legacy and thereby continue King's work.

E-mail:marcfisher@washpost.com


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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