The Failed Dream of the MLK Jr. National Memorial


The dedication of the new Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial has been postponed due to Hurricane Irene but controversy is brewing. Some visitors have raised concerns that the 30-feet tall statue of King, standing with arms crossed in a pose reminiscent of a photograph by Bob Fitch, faces Thomas Jefferson rather than Abraham Lincoln. Others have questioned why a Chinese sculptor, Lei Yixin, was selected to carve the statue rather than an African-American artist or, indeed, an American one.

MLK Memorial

Photo by Jason Rosenberg

The “Stone of Hope” statue was sculpted in China and shipped to the US where a team of Chinese workers assembled it, as Politico points out, without pay. Given that there is no short supply of experienced and unemployed — and unionized — construction workers, why still bring workers from China only to pay them nothing in violation “not only Dr. King’s principles but also U.S. anti-slavery laws”? Here’s what Edward Jackson Jr., the executive architect of the project, recently told Courtland Milloy of the Washington Post, with Politico‘s commentary.

“Not only did we need an artist, we needed someone with the means and methods of putting those large stones together,” Jackson said. “We don’t do this in America. We don’t handle stones of this size.”

Jackson has worked long and hard to get the King memorial built, and he is deserving of recognition for his efforts and dedication. But his statement is pure baloney. The sculptures at the site are made up of 159 blocks of granite, and I think the United States of America – - somehow – - could have scoured its citizenry and found people who knew how to put together 159 blocks of granite.

Not only has the construction of the memorial raised eyebrows. A review of the memorial in the New York Times suggests that the very design of the memorial “never alludes to the fundamental theme of Dr. King’s life, equal treatment for American blacks.”

Initially, the ROMA design group, the San Francisco firm chosen to design the memorial, wanted to make water its main theme, to evoke King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and his frequent references to the the prophet Amos in phrases like“let justice run down like waters …”. But financial constraints meant those initial plans had to be abandoned and only two small fountains appear at the entrance to the memorial. In the now-completed memorial, two huge granite blocks are arranged to evoke another passage from the “Dream” speech that mentions a “mountain of despair.”


Photo by Elvert Barnes

The equally huge King statue is positioned so that it is supposed to be emerging from those slabs as the “stone of hope.”

But do these mounds of granite, which are given an almost artificial appearance with their sketchy, cartoonish contours — do they evoke anything at all like a “mountain of despair”? And the unattractive slice supposedly pushed into the center of the memorial: is that really a “stone of hope”? Certainly not, judging from the expression on Dr. King’s face….

…the mound’s isolation from any other tall objects, its enormity and Dr. King’s posture all conspire to make him seem an authoritarian figure, emerging full-grown from the rock’s chiseled surface, at one with the ancient forces of nature, seeming to claim their authority as his. You don’t come here to commune with him, let alone to attend to the ideas the memorial’s Web site insists are latent here: “democracy, justice, hope and love.” You come to tilt your head back and follow; he, clearly, has his mind elsewhere.

The new King memorial renders its subject a hero as he indeed was and is. But it also, it’s suggested, turns “the minister into a warrior or a ruler.”


Photo by Elvert Barnes

The memorial is rife with symbolism and that’s precisely what King was not about, as philosopher Cornel West writes in a New York Times op-ed entitled “Dr. King Weeps From His Grave.” The election of Barack Obama in 2008 could be seen as the “undeniable success” and culmination of the civil rights movement, writes West,

The age of Obama has fallen tragically short of fulfilling King’s prophetic legacy. Instead of articulating a radical democratic vision and fighting for homeowners, workers and poor people in the form of mortgage relief, jobs and investment in education, infrastructure and housing, the administration gave us bailouts for banks, record profits for Wall Street and giant budget cuts on the backs of the vulnerable.

As the talk show host Tavis Smiley and I have said in our national tour against poverty, the recent budget deal is only the latest phase of a 30-year, top-down, one-sided war against the poor and working people in the name of a morally bankrupt policy of deregulating markets, lowering taxes and cutting spending for those already socially neglected and economically abandoned. Our two main political parties, each beholden to big money, offer merely alternative versions of oligarchic rule….

King weeps from his grave. He never confused substance with symbolism. He never conflated a flesh and blood sacrifice with a stone and mortar edifice. We rightly celebrate his substance and sacrifice because he loved us all so deeply.

What’s needed, as West says simply, is not more symbolism in the form of a stone monument with engravings of King’s words, but revolution and real change:

A revolution in our priorities, a re-evaluation of our values, a reinvigoration of our public life and a fundamental transformation of our way of thinking and living that promotes a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens.

At his funeral in Atlanta in 1968, King’s casket was carried in a wooden farm wagon drawn by two local mules, in testimony to his connection to the lives of ordinary people. It’s a connection that the new memorial, seeking to enshrine King as lofty hero, seems to have failed to capture.


Related Care2 Coverage

We Must Still Dream: The Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

It’s 1968 All Over Again, And King’s Fight for Unions Is Still Essential

High School Senior Comes Out in MLK Celebration Assembly (VIDEO)

Photo by Elvert Barnes


Shawn P.
Shawn P6 years ago

Article says it all in the last paragraph.....not a fitting tribute for such a great man.

K s Goh
KS Goh6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Winn Adams
Winn A6 years ago

So glad the memorial is up for all to visit. I hope to do that myself one day.

Adam K.
Douglas K6 years ago

King did say something about this in one of his speeches, billions for space travel but not enough for meeting human needs, I think. Because the world didn't listen to Jaures, World War I and Word War II happened. The socialists active in Europe and in charge both in Germany and France, and big in England, found themselves lined up killing each other being swept by howitzers and machine guns, killed by monarchs hurling them at each other.

Adam K.
Douglas K6 years ago

everybody from Jean Jaures socialist leader in France in 1914, to Ben Cohen believes the dear cost for such a monument would have been better spent by the government for something productive like social welfare, and probably King himself would have been of this opinion. A simple statue of piled up stones costing nothing on the Washington Mall would have sufficed and would possibly last for thousands of years. just another T-loot from our malfeasants in Congress.

Berny P.
berny p6 years ago

waste of time...not money as the workers do not get payed.....

welcome to america!

Maitreya L6 years ago

Oh I see, the Chinese workers volunteered out of "National Pride", I was thinking they were underpaid and exploited or chosen just to save money. That's ok I guess. The sculpture is a little stern looking for my taste, but it sure looks like a lot of work to sculpt.

Jane H.
Jane H6 years ago

I happen to like the memorial and am grateful to those who made it possible.

Fa'izah J. A.
Jauharah Andrews6 years ago

I'm not so sure I like the sculpture, not because it was made in China (since I wasn't aware of that until I read this article), but simply because it doesn't look finished to me. Dr. King was not a solitary figure standing strong like a wall; if it weren't for the people (and as I understand it their dislike of gays at the time) he would have been nothing and done nothing perhaps not even the negative things he did as a result of his thrust to fame.

That the sculpture was made in China speaks to Dr. King's focus on equality for all people, and shows that the Civil Rights struggle in the US is known globally. If there has been any disservice done to his message of equality for Blacks, it was done by the people of this country including the very ones he spoke in support of.

There is no way that any American artist would have worked for free. Americans don't volunteer their services like that.

Marie W.
Marie W6 years ago

Memorials have a way of taking the faces of ones making them rather than the ones being 'honored'.