The night before he was assassinated in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously roared that he had "been to the mountaintop" and he had "seen the promised land" of freedom, justice, and equality.
That spirit in the final phase of King's life has been captured brilliantly by Chinese sculptor, Lei Yixin, who was commissioned to design the centerpiece for King's memorial on the National Mall in Washington. In his models for the statue, Lei captures King as a man firmly rooted in the inalienable rights of humanity, his arms folded, looking intensely for us to take hold of the tools he left us to climb to freedom's mountaintop.
Now the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts which selected Lei has criticized his design and is recommending a more sympathetic rendering of King. The current, more defiant, rendering, the panel said, reflects a "genre of political sculpture that has recently been pulled down in other countries." Commission secretary Thomas Luebke added, in a letter to the foundation responsible for the King Memorial, that "the proposed treatment of the sculpture - as the most iconographic and central element of the memorial to Dr. King - would be unfortunate and inappropriate as an expression of his legacy."
In its simplest terms, the panel said the representation of King is too "confrontational." At best, this assessment reflects historical ignorance. At worst, it seems tied to a larger societal effort to distort, co-opt, and water-down King's legacy.
How can anyone infer that King was anything but confrontational during the last dozen years of his life? Civil disobedience is a fundamentally confrontational act.
Didn't King confront Montgomery? Birmingham? Washington D.C.? Chicago? Memphis?
Didn't he confront racism? Segregation? Injustice? Exploitation? The Vietnam War?
Last I checked, he did.
An activist by his or her very nature is confrontational, and King was the quintessential activist. King was not only confrontational, he thought it was morally imperative for his countrymen to be the same.
In his last Sunday morning sermon on March 31, 1968, after describing some of the misery he had seen around the world, King said: "As I noticed these things, something within me cried out, 'Can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned?' And an answer came—'Oh, no!'"
King choose not to pacify the masses. He chose not to be conciliatory and appeasing. Oh no! His ultimate mission was to build a mass movement of non-violent activists armed with the weaponry of love who weren't scared to confront an oppressive America. In order to continue generating this mass movement, King advised in a 1967 article in the New York Times Magazine that "there must be a climate of social pressure in the Negro community that scorns the Negro who will not pick up his citizenship rights and add his strength enthusiastically and voluntarily to the accumulation of power for himself and his people."
Lei's design is not only an accurate depiction of the image we should see of King in our historical memory, it is a prescient depiction of how King would likely confront the country now.
Sculpt a portrait in your mind of King as if he were looking at America right now? Wouldn't he be folding his arms and staring at us in disgust at segments of the black community, and the American public at large, that now scorn activism?
The Commission on Fine Arts' decision is a telling manifestation of this scorn. We are living in a time in which being confrontational is equated with being militant. And to be militant is to be radical. And to be radical is to be an extremist. And to be an extremist is to be a terrorist. Craziness, isn't it—the world we live in?
If we had an accurate historical memory of King, then we would realize that he was a militant, radical, extremist, and he was called a terrorist. But over the years, we have allowed King, the radical visionary, to be turned into King, the dreamer. We have allowed the confrontational fighter to be depicted as a peace-making conservative. We have watched quietly as the fiery orator has been recast as merely an eloquent motivator. This man who called for systemic change has become someone who wanted a few reforms.
This storied distortion of King's legacy must not become a permanent gigantic monument of misrepresentation in Washington D.C. The 28-foot proposed statue of King, carved out of a granite boulder called "The Stone of Hope," will be the largest statue on the Mall and bigger than the memorials to Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.
Harry Johnson, president of King's National Memorial, who wants a new design submitted in June that includes a "softening of Dr. King," must reconsider his decision.
Johnson should not be listening to the advice of the federal arts panel and telling Lei Yixin to change King's facial expression—unless he decides that expression is going to look more determined, more resolute and more forceful.
We should not allow a smile to be put on King's largest face when he was never happy with America. King should not look more sympathetic when he never had, nor would he have now, any sympathy for the tyranny of America.
"I can remember, I can remember when Negroes were just going around…so often, scratching where they didn't itch, and laughing when they were not tickled," King said in his final speech. "But that day is all over. We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God's world."
Ibram Rogers is a doctoral student in African-American studies at Temple University.