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The King Memorial Fails to Capture the Spirit of the Man and the Movement

After being delayed by Hurricane Irene, the official dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial finally took place on Sunday, October 16.  It was a grand occasion with performances by Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, speeches by civil rights luminaries such as John Lewis and a keynote address delivered by the president himself.  While the spoken tributes to King rang true, the memorial itself fails to capture his spirit.  And that is a loss for all of us.

The memorial sheds very little light on King, the man, and even less, on the freedom struggle that he led.  Visitors unfamiliar with King are unlikely to walk away with an understanding of who he was, what he stood for and why he is so important. 

The design of the memorial—“Out of the Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope”—takes its inspiration from an image King invoked in his epochal “I Have a Dream” speech.  A theme with a lot of potential, to be sure, but one that is only realized in the most crudely literal fashion.  You enter the memorial by walking in-between two hulking pieces of white granite, signifying the “mountain of despair.”  In front of you is the detached middle chunk of the mountain, the “stone of hope.”  On the opposite side of the stone, facing the tidal basin, a twenty-foot plus image of King emerges from the rock face.  Depicted in a suit and tie with folded arms and pursed lips, King gazes resolutely into the middle distance.  

What does the “mountain of despair” refer to?  The memorial does not provide any clues.  You will search in vain for any references to slavery, lynchings and Jim Crow segregation.  And there is no hint of the terrible violence unleashed during the King era—no allusions to the fire hoses and fire bombings, the snarling dogs and skull-cracking police batons.  How then are we to appreciate King’s profound commitment to non-violence?  His remarkable courage and bravery?

The “mountain of despair” is flanked on either side by a wall of King quotations.  The phrase “civil rights” does not appear among the inscriptions.  Neither does any reference to racism.  Even God is absent here.  Divorced from any hint of context and presented with no apparent logic or order, King’s soaring rhetoric has been reduced to tepid slogans.  And the sources that animated King’s vision of justice—from his Christian faith to his faith in the American creed of freedom and equality—have vanished as well.   

In trying too hard to present a timeless and universal King, the makers of the memorial have un-tethered King from history.  So we get justice without a burning sense of injustice.  Freedom without oppression.  Deliverance without struggle.  

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality,” one etching reads.  These words, taken from King’s 1964 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, are almost meaningless in isolation from his previous remarks.  You would never know King was declaring that truth and love would ultimately triumph over “the starless midnight of racism” and the hellish specter of “thermonuclear destruction.”     

The style of the memorial is unfortunate, to put it mildly.  It recalls nothing if not the gargantuan statues of Lenin and Mao found in Russia and China.  This authoritarian aesthetic rests on the fantasy of powerful, infallible leaders who are born rather than made. 

Even if we cannot imagine the civil rights movement without King, it would be a mistake to attribute its enduring legacy to a single man.  King, who learned from and fed off the energy of everybody from the citizens of Birmingham to the sanitation workers of Memphis, understood this better than anyone else.  That is why he accepted the Nobel Prize on behalf of the movement and “the humble children of God willing to suffer for righteousness’ sake.”  The prize, King said, honored his tireless co-workers who would “never make the headlines.”

In spite of its grand scale, I would be surprised if the solitary King depicted on the “stone of hope” becomes an iconic image.  This representation is too far removed from the spirit of the man and the movement.  “He never ever asked us to do anything that he would not do,” Congressman Lewis said, in his remembrance.  “He was arrested, jailed, beaten and constantly harassed…He suffered the slings and arrows of hate in a grassroots struggle to prove that love had eternal power to overcome the limitation of hate.”  Lewis’ remarks summon a much more resonant image of King.  I can picture him now as he should be remembered—poised at the front line of a long march, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, arms linked, with his brothers and sisters in the struggle.