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.

Getty Images
Getty Images

By 1999, armed with that perspective, the foundation launched an international design competition. The call yielded more than 900 entries from 52 countries. In keeping with the global premise, submissions were judged by a panel of 11 architecture and fine arts professionals from the United States, India, Mexico, China and France.

Ed Jackson Jr., the memorial’s executive architect, explained that the team took an international approach from the start. “When I pulled together the programming committee, we reviewed and listened to the words of Dr. King over and over,” he told The Root. “We would have these long discussions on what the memorial should be about, and we came to the conclusion that Dr. King was talking about humanity, and not just civil rights. From that standpoint of humanity, it took on a larger, global perspective, as opposed to just focusing on what was happening here in the United States.”

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.