MLK Gets Set in Stone, but the Man Is Missing

Most Americans, even those who hated him when he was alive, adore the memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. As with all icons, we love them with all of our hearts once the reality of what they stood for has been buried under layers of flattery and forgetfulness.

Though most often thought of in gauzy, sentimental terms if he's remembered at all, MLK has become the most nonthreatening of our national patron saints. The word "dream" -- as in "I Have a Dream" -- is now his middle name. It also happens to be our nation's most memorable cliche.

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

It is one of the great ironies of history: While King spent the last year of his life vilified by much of the liberal political establishment and alienated from many allies in the civil rights movement, he has become a symbol of tolerance and accommodation.

King's most prophetic utterances about American militarism, foreign wars and economic exploitation have been whittled down to bumper sticker-sized banalities over the years. We've become so fixated on MLK's "dream" rhetoric -- at the expense of the hell-raising that was once an integral part of his witness -- that his words no longer pose the threat that they once did.

When the $120 million Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial is finally unveiled in Washington, D.C., this weekend, it will be three years overdue and $20 million over budget. In many ways, its excesses and visual overstatement make it the perfect symbol of our times.

Situated between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials near the Tidal Basin, the 30-foot-tall image of MLK is emerging from its jagged cocoon of pink Chinese granite at the same time our nation is engaged in two wars. To be true to MLK's spirit, its facial expression should be one of outrage.

To get to the massive figure of MLK, the visitor has to navigate a large rock cut into three called The Mountain of Despair. King's figure is partially embedded in the Stone of Hope at the memorial's center, where it greets visitors on the other side.

With arms crossed in ways more reminiscent of a Ming Dynasty emperor than the nonviolent leader of the civil rights movement, MLK as envisioned by Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin is too formidable a creation for even the pigeons to mess with.

It is an unusual interpretation of MLK. I wish it had more in common with other memorials dotting the Mall and less in common with imperial statues from China.

While it captures an aspect of MLK's moral fierceness that Americans have forgotten, it feels more like a statement about "the end of history" than an invitation to participate in an ongoing story of liberation. It is a visual exclamation point about a movement when it should be ellipsis points.

My preference would have been for something more post-modern and non-representational -- like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The more I read and learn about the civil rights movement, the stranger projects that isolate MLK appear to me. Why separate the movement's most visible leader from that stream of ordinary people who did extraordinary things? He wasn't even the movement's most effective leader, though his martyrdom made him its most memorable.

MLK would have discouraged such a grand monument to his memory. Why not build one, if we must, that acknowledges the moral seriousness and discipline of the entire civil rights movement?

Whatever one thinks about bus boycotts, sit-ins and marches against discrimination a generation ago, they were never about advancing a cult of personality. The people who fought most fiercely for civil rights, only to lose their lives, did so to claim the protections and promises of the U.S. Constitution for all Americans.

King was part of a "glorious cloud of witnesses" whose names were either forgotten by history or never known. How amazing it would have been to see the names of ordinary people chiseled or projected on walls displayed somewhere on the Mall. The name of every person who was ever beaten, jailed or lynched because they fought for justice should be on display for every American to see what true courage looks like.

There should be room on the Mall to honor the church deacons, the weary seamstresses, the idealistic college students, the tireless domestics and all of the "nobodies" of all races who stood up to Jim Crow at considerable risk. Without them, this country never would have advanced to the next stage in its evolution.

Martin Luther King Jr. deserves more than an expensive statue in his honor. He deserves to be remembered in context. He should be honored, not revered.

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