Dr. King and the liberation movement he represents will again suffer a brutal blow this week when all are permanently entombed under the violent euphemism of “memorial.” The dedication of this $120 million stone sculpture is to be a national tribute to a man whose entire body of work was designed to destroy the very structure that now claims to honor him. It is no honor. It is a burial. The very entities against which the movement that produced King have struggled for centuries have now attached themselves to him as if to claim victory over, rather than along with, that man and that movement. This memorial should be seen as the hostile, disingenuous aggression against Dr. King that it is and should continue to be a reminder of the absolute absence of sincere change in this society.
Deborah Atwater and Sandra Herndon have written about the meaning of memorials and museums saying, in part, that they serve the “nation-state” by communicating an “official culture” whose job, “through sponsorship,” is to “retain loyalty” and the “virtue of unity.” Atwater and Herndon describe memorials as helping the state develop a “ collective American public memory” and a “shared sense of the past.” Museums and memorials become “the spaces in which that [public] memory is interpreted.” Perhaps most importantly is that memorials are said to also “give meaning to the present.” But given the vicious re-imaging King suffered before his assassination, the vitriol he withstood from a nation determined to resist the change he represented, and given the post-assassination routine destruction of his advancing radical politics, it is simply not hard to determine just what this memorial intends to convey or the present meaning it intends to define.
The collective which has formed to create the memorial seems to be a marriage of the exact forces King spoke most aggressively against: White liberals, corporations and the Black petite-bourgeoisie. The “leadership” team consists of Andrew Young and two current and former executives from General Motors. Their support leadership group consists of people like, Russell Simmons, J.C. Watts and Earl Graves, but of course Tommy Hilfiger, football team owner Daniel Snyder and NBA commissioner David Stern. But better still is the “major contributor” list which consists of such leaders in the march toward peace and equality like defense contractor Boeing and the media empire Viacom. Certainly Disney and Coca-Cola have, when not producing drawn racism or supporting the assassination of laborers, been among the brightest beacons of freedom. Of course, there are others like JP Morgan, Murdoch’s Direct TV, Exxon, Target and Wal Mart – other bastions of workers’ rights and liberty. All have come together to ensure that King be forever separated from his anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and anti-patient work for a genuine revolution.
It is fitting that this memorial is placed so as to sit “along the axis of the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials” permanently fixed between two of this nation’s greatest representatives of enslavement and anti-Blackness. It is fitting that this memorial is being established by the very segments of this society King worked strongest against and to which he offered his most biting criticism. And it is fitting that this memorial be established at a time when King’s words and deeds are least known or followed, while a Black president presides over the falling conditions of Black Americans and the falling bombs over African homes. And it is fitting that the dedication of the memorial will come 48 years after his most famous speech and 44 years after he would call his dream a “nightmare.”
For when we see the dedication ceremony and as we look upon the sculpture itself what we will see is not a true dedication to a great man, instead we will be witnessing the funeral and headstone of a movement.