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Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Controversy

Updated on January 14, 2012
Martin Luther King, Jr, National Memorial, Washington, DC | image credit: John Dove
Martin Luther King, Jr, National Memorial, Washington, DC | image credit: John Dove

I was in Washington, DC recently and I had a chance to visit the new Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in West Potomac Park near the Tidal Basin.

It was a gorgeous day and dozens of other visitors were viewing the monumental MLK, Jr. sculpture and the quotations inscribed in a stone wall forming the background. What a beatiful and serene setting to remember Dr. King and his rich legacy.

I could hardly believe the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial controversy. That's probably not surprising, since controversy followed Dr. King throughout his career. From civil rights leader to peacemaker, Dr. King took on many challenges to the status quo.

What are some of the specific issues raised by critics of the MLK, Jr. Memorial statue?

  • The Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin was chosen to do the work instead of an American, or African-American.
  • Chinese sculptor Yixin did the work in Yixin's studio in Changsha,China -- in a communist country.
  • The Martin Luther King, Jr. statue was carved in white stone from China -- white (not black) stone from a communist country.
  • The portrayal of Dr, King with his arms folded in front of him makes him look defiant -- not peace-loving and nonviolent.
  • The sculpture was done like a communist hero statue -- monolithic in style and emotionless.

My take on the Martin Luther King, Jr, Memorial

I understand the feelings that some people may have about the issues listed above. However, I feel that a world-wide selection process for the sculptor was justified. In the world of the 21st century it is good to have a global perspective. We readily consume products of every kind from Asia; why not Asian art and artists?

The finished MLK Memorial and its surroundings are a fitting tribute to Dr. King. He stands before a "mountain" of stone determined to stand against injustice. This is what he did throughout career as a pastor and leader.

I say, "Well done!"

What are specific issues with the critics of the quotations carved in stone?

The Washington Post's Rachel Manteuffel discovered a quote in the Memorial that had been paraphrased and taken out of contex:

"I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness" -- That is not an exact quotation. It is a paraphrase of King's words to fit in the available space in the stone at the Memorial. King's actual words were

"...if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter...."

He said that in a speech at the Ebenezer Baptist Church -- two months before his assassination -- reflecting on his death and what he hoped people would say about him. He wanted people to remember him for his work toward justice, peace and righteousness.

The shortened inscription, taken out of context, make MLK Jr, seem arrogant when in fact he was reflecting on how he wanted to be remembered -- as a champion of justice, peace and righteousness.

A second inscription attributed to Dr. King in error was the "arc of history" quote. The Washingon Post's Jamie Stiehm wrote about that error and pointed out that many people, including President Obama, mistakenly attribute the quote to Dr. King:

"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Dr. King used these words in a 1967 speech at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). This is actually a paraphrased summation of a thought by Theodore Parker in his 1853 work, Of Justice and the Conscience.

My take on the two inscription issues

The two criticisms listed above are accurate. If at all possible, I would suggest that the tirst inscription be changed to more accurately convey MLK, Jr.'s meaning, and to add to the second inscription an attribution to Theodore Walker.

NEWS:-- Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered that the wrongly paraphrased "drum major" inscription on King's granite memorial be corrected. In a January 14, 2012 article in The Washington Post, Salazar said,

"This is important because Dr. King and his presence on the Mall is a forever presence for the United States of America, and we have to make sure that we get it right."

We should all remember Martin Luther King, Jr.'s legacy of justice, peace and righteousness

Dr. King was a great American. His legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of most Americans. Although we are not perfect, the American society is more just because of him.

A fellow Hubber, justmesuzane, has written a beautiful tribute -- Honor The Dedication of The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Every Day. It's well worth reading and remembering.


What do you think?

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    • John Dove profile image
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      John Dove 6 years ago

      Thank you, cherrysix. Have a great day!

    • cherrysix profile image

      cherrysix 6 years ago

      I enjoyed this article! It was well-written and interesting. Thank you, Mr. Dove!

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