The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial opened two weeks ago to some controversy. Some folks complained about the choice of architect, Lei Yixin of Red China instead of an American or, more precisely, instead of an African-American. Some folks complained about the choice of granite, Chinese instead of American. I think these are valid complaints, but there are larger problems with the memorial.
The centerpiece of the memorial is called the Stone of Hope. It is a relief sculpture of Dr. King, arms crossed, speech rolled in one hand. Inscribed on either side of the Stone are two quotations from King. One of them is “I Was a Drum Major for Justice, Peace, and Righteousness.” I believe this was a terrible choice, because of all the profound things Dr. King said throughout his inspiring and all-too-brief time on this Earth, that wasn’t one of them. It’s a badly paraphrased version of one of King’s musings about his legacy. The full quotation is:
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.
As Maya Angelou aptly points out, “The [paraphrased] quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit.” From the New York Daily News:
“It makes him seem less than the humanitarian he was,” she said. “It makes him seem an egotist.”
“He had no arrogance at all,” she continued. “He had a humility that comes from deep inside. The ‘if’ clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.”
The justification was that there wasn’t enough room for the entire quotation. If that were indeed the case, then why not use something short that King actually said, such as “I have a dream…” or “Thank God Almighty, we are free at last”? Or would those be too easy, too obvious, and too accurate?
Another large problem, in my humble estimation, with the memorial is that the Stone of Hope sucks. (It occurs to me that if I ever run for anything, one of the many things I’ve written that will be taken out of context and held against me is “…the Stone of Hope sucks.”)
I like the concept of the memorial: the Stone of Hope breaks away from the Mountain of Despair. But the sculpture of King himself is a letdown. It’s all wrong. He looks like he’s leaning against the Stone and hiding from the rest of the memorial, as if waiting backstage for the moment when he’s introduced. As it is, when you look through gap in the Mountain of Despair, you can see nothing but the back of the stone. It’s not noble or inspiring at all.
It seems obvious to me that he should be marching out of the stone. Wouldn’t that be more appropriate than leaning against it? His head and shoulders should be fully above the rest of the stone; in fact, they should be the highest point in the entire memorial. His arms should not be crossed in repose, they should give a sense of swinging at his sides as he rises out of the stone. You should be able to stand a hundred yards behind the Mountain of Despair, look through that gap, and see King emerging from the stone.
Alas, I’m not an architect, and I wasn’t hired to design the memorial. If I had been, it might not have been the greatest memorial in DC, but it certainly would have been better than “Some Guy Leans Against Rock With Bastardized Quotes.” The man deserves better.
If I ever do something worthy of a memorial in DC, please don’t give anyone the chance to screw it up. “Thanks, VDV” carved on a slab of marble will suffice.