Righting Two Martin Luther King Memorial Wrongs

As a botched inscription is removed, the civil-rights leader's statue in D.C. also deserves reappraisal.

Jason Reed/Reuters

When the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial opened in Washington, D.C., there were immediate objections to a quotation inscribed on his statue. An utterance that King had spoken in humility had been edited to read as a statement of conceit: "I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness."

The stone likeness of King was similarly condemned. A "failure," wrote Edward Rothstein in the New York Times in August 2011. "The memorial could be vastly improved by simply removing the statue," opined Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post.

Thanks to a recent decision by the secretary of the interior, workers will soon return to the memorial and erase the botched inscription. The critics' aesthetic derision should also be revisited, for it, too, could stand correcting. A discerning eye is one thing; the skeptics' blind eye is quite another. And the dismissive appraisals miss compelling elements that argue in favor of a much more charitable assessment of the 30-foot stone sculpture.

Of course, apart from the poor reviews and errant paraphrasing, there is no question that the memorial had a star-crossed start. There was (among other things) controversy over the sculptor, Lei Yixin, who was neither black nor American; his workers, who were non-union and apparently uncompensated; and the large financial payment demanded by King's family for the right to portray him. To top it off, inclement weather scuttled the memorial's official unveiling.

But after decades of planning and fundraising, the aesthetic indictments had to be a painful setback for the memorial's supporters. And yet too many critics cast their eyes on the sculpture with their minds seemingly made up. The Post's takedown in particular reads as if it could have been penned well before the paper's reviewer even saw the sculpture: "You could see this coming for years .... Once it was decided that there had to be a monumental, lifelike image of King, the concept and its literal execution were both doomed to failure."

Rather than failure, I see a sculpture of King that succeeds in ways small and large. Here's why:

* The face. For all the complaints about the depiction -- it "strains at the limits of resemblance" wrote the Times' Rothstein; "King appears slightly Asian" tut-tutted the British Daily Telegraph -- the rendering of King's face ultimately succeeds thanks to a remarkable detail: the sculptor's ability to fashion in granite fatigue-triggered creases under each eye. The bags are suggested by a slight indenting or slitting of stone. But they are unmistakable and represent the years of psychological strain (some self-inflicted, most imposed) that King endured. As Gerald Marzorati wrote about author Salman Rushdie during the time in which fatwa-inspired fanatics sought to have him killed, "He looked the kind of tired for which sleep does little good." King's visage in his last years was similarly affected. Indeed, fatigue may have been his defining facial feature as death approached. Yixin nails it.

* The figure. Criticism of the statue starts at the head but continues to the toes. Rothstein's indictment reads: "We don't even see his feet. He is embedded in the rock like something not yet fully born." But what the naysayers fail to recognize is that the sculpture's unfinished appearance immediately, viscerally, and powerfully reminds visitors of King's unfinished life and America's unfinished work in the area of civil rights. It is superficial to say that King as depicted is "not yet fully born." Rather, King's murder at age 39 denied him the right to finish a full life, or even half of one. And at the time of his death, the work of the civil-rights movement was not, and did not feel, complete.

Additional meanings present themselves readily, so that the indivisibility of man and stone becomes even more clearly a precious attribute, not a fundamental flaw. King as depicted is captured not just by but literally in stone. His binding holds a mirror to an America that denied or circumscribed life's full joys and opportunities for generations of African Americans. And yet, although bound, he remains unbowed. The "brusque, arms-folded stance" that the Post derided emphasizes his refusal -- and that of African Americans generally -- to succumb to the cascading historical deprivations of slavery, servitude, segregation, and discrimination.

Presented by

Hampton Dellinger is a former state deputy attorney general for North Carolina, now in private practice. In 2008 he sought the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor. He recently served as NBC's legal analyst for the John Edwards trial.

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