What sits on a pedestal, is cast in bronze, is the nation's latest monument to one of its heroes, and is the first bust of a black American to be placed in the U.S. Capitol?
The answer, of course, is the new sculpture of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrate today: America's first federal holiday dedicated to a black American.
But beneath the monumental pride that many persons feel about the holiday and the sculpture, the question that is ringing from the hills of Anacostia to the staid homes on the Gold Coast is, "Why doesn't the bust look more like Martin Luther King Jr.?"
"Who is that masked man?" one black woman in her late thirties asked after viewing the bust from several angles.
I missed the ceremony Thursday when the bust was unveiled and placed in the Rotunda near the sculptures of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. There, Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.) noted that King was taking "his rightful place among the heroes of this nation."
Although several people questioned the bust's likeness to King, members of his family disagreed.
"It's a very good likeness," said his son Dexter. "It represents a kind of youthful aspect that is very important, especially in a society like ours where the youth really need positive role models."
To discover the truth for myself, I went to the Rotunda on Saturday. I had seen newspaper photographs, but they were not really helpful. I wanted to know if the Martin Luther King I had heard and seen in the '60s had been captured.
Some art critics would say that 20th century artists have lost the ability to make traditional sculpture, largely because of the advent of photography. Several contemporary likenesses, including the bust of John F. Kennedy in the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, have aroused the ire of people who feel that they do not sufficiently resemble their subjects. At the same time, television and film have made us demand accurate likenesses; our brains are wired to record images.
Moreover, in the case of King, he is so imbedded in the hearts of most Americans and people the world over that each of us has our own image of him. So creating a three-dimensional image that everybody likes is a nigh impossible order. Everyone has to respect the enormity of the task undertaken by John Wilson, professor of art at Boston University and a sculptor for many years.
As I approached the somber, brooding likeness of King as a young, pensive man with downcast eyes, I saw a red rose that had been placed at the base of the pedestal. In contrast to the marble sculptures that surrounded it, the cast bronze bust of King drew me like a magnet. I wanted to reach out and feel its smooth surface.
"It's not King," a woman nearby whispered.
Stepping back, I didn't agree. The nose, the mouth, the hair -- all were Martin Luther King, but they all together did not quite add up to the King in my mind. Because I remember King for his stirring words, his spiritual power and his personal magnetism, the lack of any gesture in the bust startled me. I think of the Winston Churchill statue with its V for victory sign and bulldog grimace and long for some drama or gesture to leap from the sculpture of Martin Luther King. Moreover, the eyes, with their abstract dreamy quality, give off the aura of an idealist. But, as the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson pointed out last week, King was no idealistic dreamer. Rather, in King's own words, he was a "drum major for justice."
Despite some disagreement with the artist's representation of King, people visiting the bust on Saturday felt immense pride, even reverence, for the nation's overdue honoring of King. "It's more reflective than I would like it," said William B. Carter of Northwest Washington, "but the bottom line is that I'm glad it's here."