From Many Points of View, Statue Is True to King's Image

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, May 14, 2008

I took a photograph of the proposed Martin Luther King Jr. memorial statue to the Tidal Basin yesterday and asked tourists and other passersby what they thought about it. The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, whose approval the memorial needs, has sharply criticized the sculpture.

But what about people who come to Washington just to take in such sights?

"Very impressive," said Robin Bartley, 54, a math and language arts teacher at Van Cleve Elementary School in Troy, Ohio. "The statue shows King projecting courage the way he did during a terrible time in our country's history."

Conner Super, a sixth-grader at Van Cleve, looked over the photograph and nodded his approval. "He looks determined," the 12-year-old said. "That's the kind of man he was."

The memorial, which is to be erected on the Tidal Basin across from the Jefferson Memorial, features a 28-foot-tall King standing with arms folded, emerging from a granite backdrop.

The Fine Arts Commission has all but called the statue a piece of junk and intimated that it will never see the light of day unless major changes are made.

Although some of those I interviewed shared the commission's views, the vast majority did not. And none of the African Americans I spoke with agreed with its findings.

"It's like Barack Obama. The more it looks like he could really become president, the more you hear about people suddenly not being ready for a black president," said Alex Williamson, a retired dentist visiting from Austin. "Now that it looks like we might get a statue of a black man on the Mall, people are starting to say, 'Now just hold on one darn minute here.' "

Among the changes that the commission wants to see is a softening of King's image from "confrontational in character" to "a more sympathetic idea of the figure."

Anthony McCoy, a National Park Service employee, took a break from tending a flower bed on the Jefferson Memorial grounds and looked at the photograph.

"I don't see anything wrong with it," said McCoy, 50, of Southeast Washington. "Let's be clear: If you think there is something wrong with a statue that makes Martin Luther King come off as confrontational, then there is something wrong with you. King was confrontational. If he wasn't, he'd probably still be alive."

Ed Jackson Jr., executive architect for the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project, told me recently that designers are doing all they can to accommodate the arts commission without compromising the integrity of the project.

"We've presented the image to thousands of people, and everyone loves it," Jackson said. "Frankly, it's sort of shocking that such objections would be raised at this late date."

The memorial will sit on a crescent-shaped, four-acre site and will be eight feet taller than the Lincoln statue at the Lincoln Memorial. Construction on the $100 million memorial, which is being paid for with private donations, is set to begin in October and be completed in 2010.

"It's a nice statue," said Donna Lewis, 45, who also works for the Park Service. "He looks like he's in deep thought. You can just imagine how heavily the times were weighing on him."

Dan Dalton, 49, a chaperon for the Van Cleve school trip, was one of the few critics. "He looks sort of mean," he said, wincing at the photograph. "The way he's got his arms folded looks defensive, not the way you picture a dreamer like King."

This month, a member of the National Capital Planning Commission, whose approval the project also needs, expressed a similar view.

"My image of Dr. King is of him leaning forward in anticipation, holding his chin or raising his arm," Commissioner Michael McGill said.

Perhaps someone will send Dalton and McGill a copy of Bob Fitch's 1966 photograph of King, which inspired the statue. You could find this and similar photographs of King in the homes of many black families during the 1960s.

In Fitch's photograph, King is standing in his Atlanta office next to a print of Gandhi. He appears fearless and resolute. And his arms are folded.

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