The MLK Memorial's Complicated History

After 15 painstaking years and some heated controversies, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington makes its debut.

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An entry by ROMA Design Group, a San Francisco-based architecture firm, was selected as the winner. Based on a line from King's "I Have a Dream" speech --  "out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope" -- the design's central component is a boulder sliced into three pieces. The two sides represent the proverbial mountain of despair, and the form of King emerges from a stone of hope that has moved ahead and apart from the other pieces.

With a design picked, the foundation set out to find its artist. In 2006 a search team traveled to St. Paul, Minn., for a stone-carving forum that was attended by sculptors from all over the world. "Simply put, our task was to find the best person to do the job, regardless of their country or state of origin," said Jackson.

There they met Lei Yixin of China, who they ultimately decided was that person. One of a small group of artists designated as "master sculptors" in his country, Lei had already carved more than 150 large public statues. "Readily I could see that I was standing before someone with exceptional talent," said Jackson, who was also impressed by Lei's experience and confidence in carving stone on a monumental scale. "I didn't say good; I didn't say great. I said exceptional."

Several months later, after visiting Lei's studio in China, where he presented different models of the sculpture -- including, to their surprise, a full-scale, 30-foot replica -- the team offered Lei the job.

Who Owns King?

The choice of Lei immediately raised objection from various quarters. One of the most vocal critics has been African-American painter Gilbert Young, best-known for his signature work, He Ain't Heavy. He argues that a black American sculptor should have been awarded the opportunity.

"The struggle of Dr. King was not his struggle alone. He represented our community over years of injustice in this country," Young explained to The Root. "He and my people who supported him did it here on American soil. It is a part of American history."

Young added that there were African-American sculptors who were more than adequate for the job. "Mr. Johnson said that he wanted to get the best. The best is always debatable, especially in art," he continued. "I would think that they'd have had enough sensitivity to understand that what we really wanted was fairness and the opportunity for us, as the people, to show our artistic gifts."

Of this particular grievance, Johnson said that his team simply has a different point of view. "We weren't looking at Dr. King, the African-American leader; we were looking at Dr. King, the international leader," he said. "My response to critics who question why we chose a Chinese sculptor is Dr. King's words themselves, that we should not judge a person by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

However, doubt over a Chinese artist's interpretation of King's legacy isn't the only reason that Young and others oppose the selection of Lei Yixin. Prominent human rights activists Harry Wu, who spent 19 years in a Chinese prison, and Ann Lau, chair of the Visual Artists Guild, have also taken issue with his body of work. Among the statues that he produced at home are more than a dozen icons of authoritarian ruler Mao Zedong.

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