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.