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.

Nor do the figure's critics acknowledge the limitations of the granite used to fashion it. Sculpting in stone is of course very different than casting in bronze. As an informed critic, Andrew Butterfield, recently noted, "The strength of bronze also allows the artist to pose the figure with far greater freedom. In a statue in stone, wood, or clay the limbs usually must be placed close to the body; otherwise they will break off .... As a result, statues in those materials often tend to have a blocky appearance, and to be shown in stances with little motion. But a bronze sculpture can be composed so that it depicts a state of vigorous action: running, dancing, fighting, riding, and so forth." So every critique of the composition of King's figure that fails to address the sculptor's choice of materials should be read skeptically. Of course, Yixin could have chosen to work in bronze, but to do so would have made the King statue vulnerable to the effects of acid rain that have transformed the hue of so many metal sculptures from grey or brown to an eye-offending green.

* The space. Granted, a bronze King could have been safeguarded from nature's perils by being situated in a covered space. And, not surprisingly, the memorial's critics cast aspersions on the outdoor setting as well. As the Times puts it: "[King] isn't decorously posed in a classical structure; he isn't contained in an ordered space with Greek or Roman allusions." But once again the criticisms ignore key aspects of King as a historical figure, omissions that undermine the aesthetic indictment.

First, an en plein air setting fits an outsider known for his work outside the halls of national power. Rather than being based in D.C. (as a president, senator, or otherwise) or focused on D.C. (as he would be during the Civil and Voting Rights Act debates in the mid-1960s), King came to America's attention as a Baptist minister from Montgomery, Alabama, seeking an end to segregated bus seating in his hometown.

Second, much of King's most indelible work literally took place outside. From the protests he led along streets and sidewalks throughout the South to the 1963 March on Washington he consecrated on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with his "I have a dream" speech, King is deeply associated in the public mind with the most public and unprotected of settings.

Third, as Drew Dellinger (yes, relation; filial) has pointed out, remarks by King near the end of his life suggest a growing interest in global issues and an appreciation for the nascent environmental movement. Certainly, many of King's tactics would be embraced by ecology-focused progressives, making the statue's outdoor setting all the more fitting.

Finally, the critics fail to acknowledge that the statue's open setting, coupled with its size, allows for visually incandescent interactions with sky and light.


In hindsight, we see two men uniquely astride 20th-century America: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Luther King. Each spent approximately 13 years at the forefront of our national life -- FDR from his election in 1932 until his death in 1945, MLK from the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott until his assassination in 1968. Roosevelt possessed the power of purse and sword, and his National Mall memorial reflects all that could be accomplished with such mighty tools. King had simply his vision and his words, deployed oratorically and in writing. Yet his ability to inspire with voice and pen inflated a man of slight stature into a transcendent leader of towering importance.

The sculpture of King at his eponymous memorial in Washington, D.C., makes him much larger than life but no greater than the change he wrought. And it is much more worthy of the man than the dismissive reviews that greeted it.