City leaders canceled the project to produce a proper statue honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., ending two years of community wrangling over how to mark the place where he first told an audience, "I have a dream."
The Rocky Mount City Council voted 4 to 2 Monday to end negotiations with sculptor Steven Whyte of Monterey, Calif., and spend the $45,000 the city had been saving for the statue on heating assistance and other needs.
Council member Lamont Wiggins said satisfying the city's collective memory of King had become a subjective nightmare. He said he doubted the city's ability to ever agree on a fitting likeness of the civil rights leader.
"Whatever we do is going to continue to be vilified," said Wiggins, who proposed ending the statue search. "Other than trying to build a consensus that won't be realized, I suggest we spend our money on more pressing issues facing the city."
Rocky Mount, a city of 56,000 about an hour east of Raleigh, prides itself on its association with King. On Nov. 27, 1962, he addressed 2,000 people in the gym of Booker T. Washington High School, using for the first time words he would rephrase the following August in his famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
"And so, my friends of Rocky Mount, I have a dream tonight," he said. "That one day, right here in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will meet at the table of brotherhood."
A city-block-size memorial park near the school was proposed several years ago, to be anchored by a statue of King. In 2001, the city commissioned artist Erik Blome of Chicago to create a nine-foot-tall statue of King.
Blome's bronze statue was panned in 2003 as a poor resemblance of King and was stored in a corner of the municipal warehouse.
The City Council then turned to Whyte to create a new statue.
Schedule conflicts canceled plans for Whyte to come to Rocky Mount last weekend and the next opportunity would not come until almost Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 16. Wiggins said he refused to extend the Feb. 28 deadline for the statue's completion.
"I think it's time for us to make a decision and move on," he said.
The city had spent $15,000 for materials on Whyte's work and expected to spend $45,000 more, with an additional $25,000 coming from a gift from an anonymous donor, City Manager Steve Raper said.
Council member W.B. Bullock noted that when a clay model of Whyte's proposed statue was displayed at City Hall last month, fewer than 250 people came to view it and fill out a comment card.
Council member Chris Carroll Miller said she opposed giving up on a statue because it would set a bad example.
"If we throw up our hands, it almost seems we are incapable of coming together," she said.
The rejected statue of the civil rights leader.