The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is a mess these days. The man emerging from the mountaintop is swaddled in scaffolding on three sides. You can see him only if you stand directly in front of him. Men at work, engines roaring, chain-link fence and traffic cones make contemplating King’s legacy rather difficult. And I am standing here, watching it all, feeling responsible. Because I am.
I hadn’t been back to the monument in the two years since I first saw it and thought, hmm. I went home, Googled the oddly pompous words flanking King to the left, and discovered they were a ham-fisted truncation of something far more nuanced and humble that King once said in a sermon. The shortening of his words was a dreadful error in judgment, a depressing reminder of how we have failed King in so many other ways, and it filled me with joy. An evil sort of joy.
This was wrong, and I’d get to right it, by writing. I did, in this newspaper, and it got important people angry enough to do the seemingly impossible: change what was written in stone. At an estimated cost of $900,000.
The quote had been shortened not by a historian but by an architect, as an aesthetic decision. The change was never approved by the council that had chosen the memorial’s quotes. Cutting words for space had turned a self-effacing statement by King into a strangely arrogant, somewhat baffling boast of his own importance as a “drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” Not the kind of thing you see on memorials.
After a bureaucratic imbroglio over a sandblasting technique that slowed the process down, the monument is now back on track to be fixed by Aug. 28, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
People ask me what it feels like to have wrought such a change. Humbling, I say, staring off importantly into middle distance. It’s not about me, I say. It’s a testament to the power of truth, of words, and people of goodwill acting as one. It is about Maya Angelou’s indignation, and The Washington Post editorial board’s persistence, and Stephen Colbert’s acid contempt. Mostly, it’s about Martin Luther King Jr. and the debt we all owe him, and about remembering him the right way.
That’s only one way of looking at it, of course. Here’s another way, more appropriate to Washington, which is Egotown, U.S.A. In this second formulation, I went on “CBS This Morning” to talk about the memorial, and they picked me up in a cab! I am on the monument’s Wikipedia page. I am the $900,000 woman. I am an English major for justice, peace and righteousness.
Perhaps the greatest measure of my awesome powers is that people still write to me for help fixing what they don’t like about memorials. That King looks Chinese, or left-handed, or that Eisenhower shouldn’t look like a farm boy, and that FDR specifically asked for a monument no bigger than his desk, so why did we allot him acres? Surely I can get something done, the e-mails implore.
This is also a grave responsibility. And it brings with it some power. And if you don’t use power, you lose it. Which is why I’ve been walking around federal Washington of late hoping to find something in other monuments in need of a fix. Below, some suggested revisions.
Monument: Boy Scout Memorial, dedicated in 1964
Location: The Ellipse
There’s “wrong” the way the inscribed MLK quote was wrong, and then there’s just . . . wrong. A young Scout, all smiles and confidence, is followed closely by two nearly naked adults. Sure, it’s allegorical or something — the man and woman are idealized like Greek gods or superheroes, except that the man has a smirk as if he’s thinking, “Hey, check me out!” Kirk Savage, in his book “Monument Wars,” called this one “pure camp,” which is as close as the statue gets to what Boy Scouts actually do. According to the inscription, these are “American Manhood and Womanhood and the ideals they will pass onto the youth.” Hundreds of Boy Scouts collected dimes to finance this statue; it’s possible that, had you taken a vote, they all would have wished Scouting involved more hanging out with naked people and less starting fires and tying knots. That’s the least-creepy explanation I can think of, anyway, so let’s go with it.
Fix: Put some clothes on the adults and have the Scout doing something remotely Scoutish.
Monument: Emancipation Memorial, dedicated 1876
Location: Lincoln Park, Southeast Capitol Hill
Infractions: Creepiness, condescension, cultural insensitivity, inappropriate innuendo
This one is repellent, too, despite noble intentions. By some accounts it was paid for exclusively by freed slaves, who wanted a monument to Abraham Lincoln. Presumably they did not want a slave on all fours, cowering before Lincoln in a loincloth, chains still on his arms, but that’s what they got after the cause was taken up, for some reason, by the Western Sanitary Commission of St. Louis. There’s Lincoln, all grandly gesturing that the slave should maybe get up and be free, and the slave is not quite getting it yet. Lincoln will probably have to show him how to be in charge of his own destiny. It’s all so patronizing and paternalistic that you might not notice the let’s-call-it romantic situation suggested by their relative positions. But now you can’t un-notice it!
Also, on the back is a plaque in which the names of the president and treasurer of the Western Sanitary Commission of St. Louis are writ larger than the name of Abraham Lincoln.
Fix: A toughie. Maybe just change the title from “Emancipation” to “We try not to endorse this way of thinking anymore, that it was some great gift on behalf of some Americans to stop enslaving their fellow humans. Or that emancipation just happened one day to the passive slave population. Lincoln’s speeches were very nice, though, go read a couple at his big memorial, instead of at this one.”
Monument: Temperance Fountain,
dedicated circa 1880
Location: Penn Quarter across Seventh St reet from the Archives Metro station
Infraction: Silliness, hideousness, futility of message
Widely celebrated as Washington’s ugliest statue, this dry fountain features terrible fish twisted together, their mouths gaping to show teeth like a shark’s. You were supposed to put your face near that to drink the water. There are four columns and a roof covering the fish, and there’s a heron on the roof. Because herons frequently coexist with monster fish.
This is one of the 15 fountains designed, built and donated to cities by Henry Cogswell, a millionaire dentist of the 19th century. Cogswell was convinced that people drank beer only because they had no access to clean water, and therefore supplying drinking fountains would sober everyone up for good. Only four of his fountains remain, since they were particular targets of ambitious drunk people looking for a project — the fountains got thrown into a lake, buried under a sidewalk, etc. The San Francisco Cogswell fountain featured a statue of Cogswell himself; there’s a newspaper illustration of it being taken down, Saddam-style, by a mob of self-professed art lovers in 1894. Sen. Sheridan Downey (D-Calif.) once called the D.C. one “a monstrosity of art” and proposed its removal, but apparently Congress was busy ignoring bigger things in 1940.
The easiest way to make the fountain more attractive is to have a couple of drinks at Penn Quarter Sports Tavern, roughly 100 feet away. It’s probably most attractive as seen from the bar’s patio, with your view partially blocked by potted palm trees and potted sports fans.
Fix: Fix the plumbing and have it run bourbon.
↑A fountain outside the Library of Congress , above, in which a turtle is endlessly expectorating on a woman’s face (though she does seem pretty pleased about it).
↓The Mary McLeod Bethune statue in Lincoln Park, in which the great educator appears to be stealing a toy from children.
↓↓ The Khalil Gibran statue near the Naval Observatory, in which, from certain angles, the somewhat schlocky aphorist appears to be throwing up on a bench.
I hope that the powers that be, fueled by your shared outrage, will attend to these small fixes forthwith. In the meantime, I urge you to visit King while the wall beside him is utterly blank. It’s a degree of dignified silence one will likely never again find in Washington.