The Many Problems People Have With the MLK Memorial

Gripes include Chinese handiwork, totalitarian influences, and bad quotes

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Hurricane Irene may have delayed the dedication ceremony for Washington D.C.'s new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, but it hasn't stopped the monument's critics from lashing out at the sculpture for a variety of reasons in recent days. (The sculpture, of course, also has many defenders, including King's son, Martin Luther King III.) Let's take a look at the primary grievances:

  • Made in China The statue, Politico's Roger Simon notes, "was sculpted in China by a Chinese sculptor out of Chinese granite and shipped to the United States where it was assembled by Chinese workers." While The Statue of Liberty was sculpted by a Frenchman in France, he concedes, "it was a gift to the United States and celebrated a concept, not an actual human being who lived and died in America and for America." The Telegraph points out that some have "even remarked that Dr. King appears slightly Asian." 
  • Made by Unpaid Chinese Workers The fact that the monument's Chinese workers weren't paid anything, Simon argues, "would seem to me to violate not only Dr. King's principles but also U.S. anti-slavery laws." (The workers did receive free room and board in Crystal City, Va., and may get paid when they return to China.)
  • Sculptor Not African-American "Surely, having a black sculptor of a black civil rights icon--working on ground once toiled by black slaves, on the National Mall, designed and surveyed with the help of a black mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Banneker--would have added to the King memorial's symbolic power," The Washington Post's Courtland Milloy asserts. "So, yes, it stings when, centuries later, creators of the King memorial say they couldn't find a qualified black sculptor." Instead, he adds, they went with Lei Yixin, who "hails from a country that oppresses ethnic minorities, exploits its workers, and jails human-rights activists and the attorneys who try to defend them."
  • Resembles Totalitarian Art The King memorial was actually reworked back in 2008 because it appeared too "confrontational" and similar to political art in totalitarian states. But the modifications haven't appeased some critics. The Post's Charles Krauthammer applauds the monument's placement on the Tidal Basin but says the memorial shouldn't have been sculpted by Lei Yixin, who has created several monuments of Mao Zedong in China. Lei's "flat, rigid, socialist realist King does not do justice to the supremely nuanced, creative, humane soul of its subject," Krauthammer writes. "I can't help but shake the idea that you could rip off the MLK mask and find Mao scowling beneath," Big Think's Bob Duggan adds. The Post's Milloy sees a "stern colossus, dressed no less in a style of suit similar to ones found on many statues of Stalin."
  • Stone Makes King Look White The memorial's designers "say that they were looking for stone with the right Washington vibe, The Daily Beast's Blake Gopnik explains, but they ultimately chose a pink granite "with a striking resemblance to pale, freckled skin." Gopnik also asserts that the monument is too small.
  • Quote Misattribution At the Post, Jamie Stiehm takes issue with one quote on the memorial: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." She says the quote, one of President Obama's favorites, belongs not to King but rather to Theodore Parker, a Bostonian abolitionist and Unitarian minister who died in 1860.
  • Quote Selection and Organization Krauthammer argues that the monument's 14 King quotes are "in no discernible order, chronological or thematic," and some "are simply undistinguished, capturing none of the cadence and poetry of King's considerable canon." He adds that "the citations dwell almost exclusively on the universalist element of King's thought" rather than illuminating how King "consciously rooted civil rights in the American story."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.