Remembering MLK, A review and reflection on the new memorial

The new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC

The genesis of granite is intimately related to the dynamic structure of the Earth.

I visited the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on Wednesday, August 31, 2011, following the washed out dedication ceremony (because of Hurricane Irene) that was scheduled for the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington.  There, I mingled with families, DC employees on their lunch breaks, student groups, Park Service personnel and other pilgrims.  The sun was out, radiating hotly off the memorial’s foreign granite.  Stone benches, shaded by the famous cherry trees, offered relief from the heat and a place to sit, observe and reflect.  Perhaps, that is when it began, a sense of satisfaction, and yet, upon reflection, the final piece has some discordant elements. One has the impression, after contemplating the memorial, that this is something good, but not quite right.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the leading man of the civil rights movement.  He preached about “social gospel,” applying the lessons of the Bible to Earthly problems.  He drew people to his ideals and led his flock with speeches, sermons and Bible verses in the face of billy clubs, dogs and hate, linked arm in arm, singing.  We respect him for daring to fight for his rights from a society that withheld them, for demonstrating and drawing a nation’s eye to its own disgrace, for speaking to his contemporaries and subsequent generations about a dream and a promise land, and for risking to march unarmed in the name of justice.

The inscription carved onto the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the approximate spot where King gave his "I have a Dream" speech

For such reasons, King’s fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, initiated the process during the Clinton administration to build a memorial, like those of other remembered Americans, and add his likeness to our national stage in Washington DC.  Few men or their movements made such apt use of the National Mall as a setting for their cause.  In fact, it may be argued that every cause since the March on Washington has sought to borrow from its aura and King’s iconic status in bringing their voices to be heard at the Zeus-like feet of Lincoln.

The controversies that stirred following the memorial’s approval began, as it must for every new monument, with location and concern for preserving vistas.  It continued when the anonymous international competition selected Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, whose past works include monumental statuary of Mao Zedong.  His previous sculptures became salient in the context of King’s memorial when the design was critiqued by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts for being of “colossal scale and Social Realist [in] style…recall[ing] a genre of political sculpture that has recently been pulled down in other countries.”  The granite is also Chinese, not American; cut by Chinese laborers, not Americans.

Artist Lei Yixin's signature carved onto the Stone of Hope

Granite is the main component of continents; it is one of the oldest know rocks; and the geological history of granite provides the main evidence about the growth and evolution of continents through time.

In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, given on the steps of the Abraham Lincoln Memorial, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Equality, King said,

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.  When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.  This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

As children in school, we learn simultaneously of the glorious freedom for which revolutionary Americans fought and the horrible bondage in which black Americans were enslaved.  King testified that glorious freedom was conceived long before it was achieved.  King stood on the steps of the Great Emancipator’s memorial and reflected on the evolution of our country’s understanding of freedom.  He believed in our ideals and challenged our resistance to meet our standard.

Across the Tidal Basin from the new Martin Luther King Memorial, sits the Thomas Jefferson Memorial

Standing on the four-acre granite foundation of King’s new memorial, one looks across the Tidal Basin and sees the Thomas Jefferson Memorial.  Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence was edited by the Continental Congress to create the version that now sits, faded by time, in the National Archives.  The current composition is quite fine and most of the edits improved the document’s rhetorical art, but one of Jefferson’s sections, expunged to appease slave-owning colonies, was starker in its conception of freedom:

[King George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither…  Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce…

From this early tension through the deplorable (but necessary?) compromises over slavery while composing the Constitution, we progressed to the Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln and the post-war amendments that should have ended legalized racism.  And, then, we faltered.  Following the combined failures of the Reconstruction and the Supreme Court, laws were written to separate White America from Black America, without regard for equality.  The climate deteriorated until lynching would become a social activity in some places and photographed Klan members would eschew their hoods, unafraid to be seen with fresh corpses.  This condition would persist until Thurgood Marshall’s lawsuits, the civil rights movement and King ended it.  King, embodying our evolution, stood in the White House as President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, July 2, 1964.

The new memorial, across the street from its visitor's center

Granite formed in a number of different situations.  Some granite was generated in zones of rifted continental or oceanic crust, but most granite was generated in zones of collision between continents and oceanic crust, and where continents were amalgamated.

Jefferson’s legacy was born out of the conflict between colonists and the English government, embodied in the minds of revolutionary Americans in the person of King George III.  Initially, they fought for the rights they knew Englishmen in England already had: representation in Parliament.  A king who would refuse them their voices in governance and visit upon them, “a long train of abuses and usurpations,” proved how unfit he was to govern.

The unresolved conflict from Jefferson’s day created Lincoln’s legacy.  Lincoln, himself, evolved in his understanding of his duty to America’s slaves, finally issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and repairing his own country’s “train of abuses and usurpations.”  His dedication to correcting the disgrace rang out in his second inaugural address, shortly before his assassination.

The Lincoln Memorial includes Lincoln's second inaugural address, carved into the inner right wall of the memorial

King’s legacy was born in the collision of forces fighting for and against equality in a mess of unfinished business.  His goal, as professed in some of the twentieth century’s most beautiful orations, was for an America people amalgamated by common principles of freedom and justice for all, not divided by hatred among races.

Jefferson and Lincoln are remembered in marble.  Marble is the neo-classical artist’s stone of choice, so popular in the capital city’s art and architecture—a nod to the classical ideologies of representative government in ancient Greece and Rome which inspired Jefferson and his cohort.  But, since the end of the twentieth century, granite has become the preferred medium.  In both the Korean and Vietnam Veterans Memorials the black granite has been polished until it reflects like a mirror, but the granite at King’s memorial is different; it is rough to the touch.

If one enters at the visitor’s center one is funneled through its gates of white granite stylized as mountains, formally the Mountain of Despair.  As one approaches, one sees a matching block of mountain-like granite.  Upon it can be read, “OUT OF THE MOUNTAIN OF DESPAIR A STONE OF HOPE,” and beyond it the Jefferson memorial is seen.  In fact, the gateway is aligned along the crow’s flight from the Jefferson to the Lincoln memorial.  Once inside, smooth, gray granite panels form walls that reach out to the left and right in embrace of the Tidal Basin, bearing quotes from King’s body of work.  King is embedded in the Stone of Hope, facing Jefferson.

"With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope," ~ Martin Luther King, "I have a Dream"

Approaching the memorial through the Mountain of Despair, to the Stone of Hope; the Jefferson Memorial is in the background

Although superficially simple and similar, most granites reflect a complicated history of multistage, hybrid processes.  This complexity has led to a diversity of interpretations

The design is born from one of King’s lines about a stone of hope emerging from a mountain of despair, not his most enduring aphorism.  When we think of King and mountains, we think of reaching the Mountaintop, we think of freedom ringing from the Rockies, Stone Mountain, Lookout Mountain, the Alleghenies and every Mississippi hill and molehill!  But, nowhere in the memorial is freedom ringing from mountaintops, none of these other promontory quotes is used.

No reference is made to marching in Selma or Washington DC.  There is no mention of a Birmingham jail cell.  No allusions to sit-ins, kneel-ins or boycotts.  There is no clear reference to King receiving the Nobel Peace Award.  Instead the quotes focus on lofty ideas, divorced from King’s real events—peace on earth, the making of a greater nation and finer world, unconditional love, light driving out darkness, the arc of the moral universe, freedom for impoverished spirits, and loyalty to mankind.  They are nebulous, uprooted from their original exhortations and deprived of historical context.

The northern wall of quotations from the Mountain of Despair; the Washington Monument is in the background

Much has been made of King’s pose in the memorial, emerging about knee-level from the thirty-foot Stone of Hope, staring at some unseen point of reflection, arms crossed with a document rolled and gripped in his left hand.  In The New York Times review, author Edward Rothstein suggests that the image is from a photograph taken by Bob Fitch, “that shows [King] with crossed arms, engrossed in thought.  But, here, the crossing of arms is a sign of something else: determination, perhaps.  Or command.  Monumental, not human.”  It would be disingenuous of me not to acknowledge that this is not how most people think of King.

The memorial has many detractors.  A quick search of our major newspapers will reveal numerous reviews declaring it deficient in recalling the man it is intended to remember.  Much of this criticism stems from the common challenge with which any monument must grapple, namely to discern those aspects that will be carved in stone.  This is further compounded by the lapse of time from the life of the person to that of the designer.  Here, the truth of King living with a culture that abused an entire race of people is lost to anyone who does not bring those memories or that knowledge with them.

Memorials are tricky things.  Thomas Jefferson is positioned to keep an eye on the president, with a visual line of the White House, symbolically guarding against the executive power he feared until it was his.  The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is dedicated to the lives lost and the survivors who visit and stare at the names of men they knew, seeing themselves reflected between the lines.  As a tour guide, I heard both ardent devotion and dismissive disgust from veterans as they gazed at it.  King’s memorial seems burdened by the present as it seeks to communicate the past and, in the end, is a bit difficult to comprehend.

Seen from the benches facing the northern wall of quotes and looking South toward the Stone of Hope and the Mountain of Despair

The memorial has also been widely praised by many and the obvious cannot be overlooked: the memorial’s existence is its best attribute.  Perfect or flawed, men and women of different races and nationalities basked in his presence.  While some, like Rothstein, see an authoritarian aspect, others see resolve; while some hear the whispers of Mao Zedong, others discern admiration from artist Lei Yixin—a man acquainted with government’s injustice; while some seek Selma, others find peace.  These do not render the criticisms irrelevant, but they do represent the memorial’s effect on many visitors.

I don’t believe any memorial is intended to stand alone in its testament to history, but especially in this case it cannot be permitted.  This memorial must be supplemented with a generous helping of history.  It must be appreciated in the context of disenfranchisement and violence visited upon American citizens.

The Mountain of Despair is regarded as the entrance, but I recommend against it.  Start your journey at the Jefferson.  Then, walk along the Tidal Basin, under the shade of the cherry trees (for this trip, skip FDR).  Enter King’s memorial from the Tidal Basin.  Listen to the other people talk about him, his legacy and his memorial.  Listen for older visitors sharing their memories.  Leave through the mountainous entryway and think of freedom ringing across the nation.  Walk along Independence Avenue to the Lincoln.  Step onto the plaza in front of him and turn in a circle, imagining the space full of people, shoulder to shoulder, clinging to trees and lamp posts.  Then walk up the stairs and read the words from Lincoln’s speeches.  On your way out, stop on the landing.  Where the granite stairs meet the marble ones, find the inscription that marks the approximate spot where King told the nation about a dream he had for us all.

The memorial as seen from the edge of the Tidal Basin, looking in the direction of the Lincoln Memorial

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3 Comments

Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Historian's Journal, Reviews, Travel

3 responses to “Remembering MLK, A review and reflection on the new memorial

  1. Pingback: What MLK quotations would YOU have included in the new memorial? | Brush off the dust! History now!

  2. Pingback: What to do with memorials and monuments? A reflection on memory | Brush off the dust! History now!

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