Why the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Failed—and How to Fix It

The design vision was strong, and the artist accomplished, but a couple of key changes were made between conception and execution


Nearly 15 years after President Clinton signed legislation for the construction of a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King on Washington, D.C.'s National Mall, the finished work was dedicated in October. The memorial is on the south side of the mall, on the edge of the Tidal Basin overlooking the Jefferson memorial. If you draw a straight line from the Jefferson to the Lincoln memorial, the King memorial is about halfway between them.

The memorial is intended to be entered from the corner of Independence Avenue and West Basin Drive, which is unlikely, because most pedestrian traffic approaches the memorial from farther east on Independence (the way I walked in), or from the FDR memorial to the south. If you arrive at the memorial the way the designers had envisioned, you might not at first see the memorial at all. At the corner there is a large amoeba-shaped planter made of granite -- this was added late in the design as a security measure to keep vehicles from driving into the memorial (Washington is littered with these makeshift "bomber barriers").

Past the ugly planter you see a fake mountain, its whitish/pinkish color suggesting snow or a pile of rock salt. At the center of the mountain, a wide slice has been removed, and you are supposed to pass between the cleft, arriving at a plaza where the missing piece has been pushed toward the Tidal Basin. Walking around this monolith you will discover a 30-foot-tall sculpture of King, appearing uncharacteristically stern and authoritarian, coming out of the rock face. On one side of the monolith are carved the words: Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

There is no plaque that explains the journey through the fake mountain, or how the King monolith seems to have become stranded in the middle of the plaza. The symbolism is from a quote in King's 1963 "I Have A Dream" speech, in which he says: "With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope." King was talking about his faith in the dream of a nation free of prejudice. It is not one of King's more memorable quotes, but it is the theme for this memorial; if you're unfamiliar with this line, you might not "get it."

The problem with this memorial is that it takes a symbolic, rather obtuse reference embedded in King's great oratory, and attempts to make a memorial out of it by inflating it into a cartoon. And it is very cartoonish. When you first see this carved mountain it might remind you of a ride at Disneyland, or a miniature Mount Rushmore. The more you look at it the more ridiculous it appears, especially with a river of baffled tourists flowing through it, camera phones clicking away. Apparently the National Park Service, which maintains the memorial, has expressed concerns about frat boys repelling down the "mountain" late at night. It belittles the man and his memory.

If you walk into the memorial the "wrong" way, as I did off of Independent Avenue to the east, you have a different experience. You pass a bermed wall on one side, clad in green stone, into which quotes from King's speeches are carved. It is a gentle arc of a wall, which faces a low wall on the other side with benches and plantings. The inscribed wall rises from the ground to about 15 feet, effectively screening out traffic and noise, creating a fitting contemplative atmosphere. As you follow the arc around, reading the quotes, you finally arrive at King's monolithic statue, looking out over the water. You see him first in profile, and from this angle he initially appears contemplative as well. Moving past the monolith the experience runs in reverse, with more inscriptions and the high wall diminishing in height. In this way it is very much like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial nearby, composed of inscribed walls that give us a view into conflict: at the Vietnam memorial, the price paid in lives; at the King memorial, the words of a man dedicated to justice.

But King's statue itself is a disappointment. It has been criticized for its Maoist overtones (it was carved by a Chinese sculptor, Lei Yixin, in China, and assembled in Washington by Chinese workers -- talk about outsourcing). It's a one-liner, sort of a "great man" statue you'd see in Beijing -- so alien to the fully human being that King was. Getting turned into stone can be deadly.

What went wrong here? The design by ROMA Design Group, the architecture and landscape firm that won the memorial design competition in 2000, is different in several important ways from the memorial that was built. The "mountain" at the entrance was far more abstract in the early competition. Two narrow slabs of stone framed the entrance and would have appeared more as eroded columns than the mountain in the memorial.

The finished sculpture of King is also far unlike the one in the winning proposal. Rather than the bombastic, warmed-over Socialist Realism of Lei Yixin, the design concept shows an unfinished rendition of King in profile, who appears to emerge from of the edge of the stone -- yet becoming. To me, this seems far more reflective of the history of Civil Rights in this country: America is still evolving, still "becoming" in its understanding of and reckoning with that complex history, and how it continues to shape us today. We are not there yet, the conceptual sculpture seemed to say, but we are (with King's sacrifice) further along.

Even the inscription on the side of the statue was changed. Instead of the cryptic "Stone of Hope" allusion, this passage from his "I Have a Dream" speech was to be carved on the side of King's sculpture: "When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

This is a far more powerful message, and it accomplishes two things that the finished memorial does not: First, it addresses the man across the Tidal Basin who helped write that promissory note, Jefferson, and ties the two memorials together. Second, it subtly shifts the focus of the memorial from commemorating the work of a single man to rededicating ourselves, all of us, to fulfilling the promise of that note, echoes of which can be found in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address carved on the walls of his own memorial not far away: "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced."

Had King's passage been used (oddly enough, the memorial contains no quotes from the "I Have a Dream Speech" at all), the King memorial would have fused the promise of the Founders, and the sacrifice of the Civil War, to the achievements of America's Civil Rights movement and one of its most gifted leaders.

Image: Larry Downing/Reuters.