The National Mall, a wide expanse in the heart of the nation's capital, is home to numerous monuments honoring U.S. presidents and military sacrifice. This week, the setting's latest commemorative work opens to the public: the long-awaited Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial.
Bordering Washington, D.C.'s Tidal Basin between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, a 30-foot granite sculpture of the prominent civil rights activist looms. It's flanked by a crescent-shaped wall inscribed with 14 excerpts from some of King's most notable sermons and speeches. Further enhancing the site are 182 cherry blossom trees, which will reach full bloom each April, the month of King's death. And the memorial's street address, 1964 Independence Avenue, references the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a milestone of the civil rights movement.
"This is going to be a first in two different ways — it's the first memorial on the National Mall to honor a man of peace, and a man of color," Harry Johnson Sr., president and CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, told The Root. "Now the Mall as we know it, the great land on which we honor our heroes, will be diversified much like this country."
Creating a permanent tribute to the globally revered icon, one that captures his vision of freedom, opportunity and justice for all Americans, was a tall order, to say the least. Despite critics who have assailed its decisions along the way — from the artist of the sculpture to the design and the granite used — the team behind the project feels certain that it got it right.
"Next to Obama's inauguration, a few funerals and weddings, this is perhaps the largest event to happen in the past 50 years to people of color in this country," said Johnson. "I'm excited to know that children, people who knew Dr. King and others will go past it, and they will get the same feeling that everyone gets when they see it for the first time — a shock and awe."
The Making of a Monument
The vision to build a national memorial for Martin Luther King Jr. was initially conceived in 1984 by Alpha Phi Alpha, the African-American fraternity of which King was a member. Congress authorized the memorial in 1996, and two years later the Alphas set up a foundation to manage fundraising — to the tune of $120 million — and design.
"We didn't want it to just be a monument or a statue, but a living memorial," said Johnson. "It was important that it tell a story, so that people could walk through and read the words of Dr. King and have those words still have relevance today."
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.
"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.
"Mao Zedong had one of the most egregious human rights records in the world," said Young. "If you're selecting an artist to build a monument to fairness and justice, why would you select someone with no record of that on their résumé?"
In 2008 the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts expressed further reservations about the stylization of the King monument, maintaining that the sculpture's colossal scale and character — arms folded, with a stern facial expression — was too "confrontational" and reminiscent of political art in totalitarian countries that has been pulled down.
Jackson, who consulted with the King family throughout the process, said that the bold representation was intentional. Out of four model heads with different facial expressions that Lei produced, King's children all chose the final version as looking most like their father. Jackson recounted, "After Martin III indicated his selection, he said, 'If my father were not confrontational, given what he was facing at the time, what else could he be?' "
Still, more controversy followed the memorial when the foundation announced that, rather than American stone, the statue would be carved of pink Chinese granite. Jackson maintained that they wanted a light color palette that would complement other monuments on the National Mall, a particular hue that he said they could not find among the gray and black granite in the United States.
Clint Button, a South Carolina granite carver whose family has worked continuously in the U.S. granite industry for 120 years, contends that the project could have very well been made in America. "Granite is about form, not about color. It's a complete misrepresentation for them to say that it needed to be done overseas," Button told The Root. He and hundreds of other granite workers have protested the King memorial, partially because of the negative impact that imported stone is having on the U.S. granite industry. With frequent outsourcing to China and India, many companies have been forced to lay off workers or shut down entirely.
"We can't work for $1 or $2 a day," Button said, referring to low-cost Chinese granite — and the human rights concerns tied to it. "My family and the unions fought for safety regulations, none of which exist in China. You see [Chinese miners] wearing little masks or cloth over their faces, but all that does is filter out the big pieces that get stuck in your nose. The deadly dust goes straight into your lungs."
Despite the King memorial's completion, Young and Button continue to speak out against it, now desiring for the sculpture to be torn down and started anew. "This is the most disappointing thing in life for me, to be 70 years old and see that my fellow artist brothers never had an opportunity to show their wares," said Young. "That's the most important piece of artwork to ever come from the black community in Washington, D.C., and it was made in China."
A Dream Realized
Needless to say, the memorial foundation has no plans to tear anything down. With thousands expected at the memorial on Aug. 28 for its official dedication ceremony — including President Barack Obama, Aretha Franklin and Jamie Foxx — Jackson is anxious to unveil what he says has been a labor of love.
He recalled a conversation with Coretta Scott King, who served as the chair of an honorary committee for the memorial and died in 2006, shortly after the design was unveiled. She'd expressed disappointment at some of the representations of her husband around the country, which to her never captured his likeness.
"The image that we chose is one that, from our point of view, presents Dr. King as a philosopher of ideas, someone who was strong in his belief of what America stood for and where America should be going," said Jackson. "The goals he set have not been reached, but we have a memorial that allows us to champion his message, so that we don't forget to pick up where he left off in trying to make the world a better place. The promise I made to her sitting at that table was, 'Mrs. King, I promise you, I will not let you down.' "
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.