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The King Memorial fiascoBY: Robert Zaller 08.28.2011
Martin Luther King spoke of going up the mountain. He didn’t speak of becoming one. The new memorial to him on the National Mall is both a moral and aesthetic disaster. The blame lies not in the inadequacy of King’s vision, but of ours.
Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. National Mall, 1964 Independence Ave, SW, Washington, D.C. www.mlkmemorial.org.
A monument to bad faithROBERT ZALLER
The official dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on Washington’s National Mall has been delayed by the weather, but I’ve seen enough already. The quality of the Mall’s monuments has declined steadily of late. Not that they were ever particularly high, but the King memorial is the nadir.
Looking at the stupendous faux-Michelangelo figure emerging from rock, arms akimbo and brow belligerently furrowed, the only reaction can be: What were they thinking?
One thing that wasn’t being thought of was a black man. The monument, the work of the Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, is albino white. That might have worked for a Michael Jackson memorial, since Jackson seemed driven by a desire to crawl out of his own skin.
But Martin Luther King sought parity for his race, not its eclipse. He was color-blind only to the extent that he believed that America must honor its Jeffersonian promise by granting equality to all and superiority to none. That didn’t mean the abolition of difference, but its celebration.
King’s venal family
The other regrettable parallel with the Jackson clan is the venality of King’s family. King’s heirs reportedly demanded and received $800,000 from the memorial’s fund-raisers for the use of King’s likeness and writings. The Kings have been a national embarrassment for a long time, and with the death of Coretta Scott King five years ago, all the gloves have come off. Joe Jackson need take no back seat to this clan.
The statue itself, which at 30 feet towers 11 feet over the Lincoln Memorial, is only the centerpiece of a four-acre tract that features a 450-foot curving wall containing extracts from King’s writings and speeches. In effect this design both extends and diminishes the colossus of the statue itself, like a soundless microphone broadcasting into eternity.
I haven’t mentioned the two giant granite slabs— also white— that serve as a gateway to the monument. These, we are told, represent the mountain of despair and the stone of hope of which King spoke in his “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963. These were not King’s most felicitous metaphors, but in any case the slabs, ungainly in themselves, are unintegrated into the memorial design. They reinforce only the intimidating and (as the New York Times critic Edward Rothstein has put it) “authoritarian” aspect of the whole.
Martin Luther King spoke of going up the mountain. He didn’t speak of becoming one.
Lincoln’s Man of Sorrows
The Lincoln Memorial is profoundly ideological. It displays America’s 16th president seated royally on a throne, taking in his fellow citizens with a paternal gaze worthy of a divine right monarch. But that’s all right. We’ve democratized the image into an ark of shelter, and the gravity of the gaze is as much turned inward as out. The obvious intention— to create a secularized Man of Sorrows— is realized within a tightly centralized design.
I’m not sure whether Lincoln did the republic more good than harm, but he evidently serves— at least outside the South— as the image of collective suffering for our greatest national trauma. On that level, the grandiosity of his memorial is acceptable, and even affecting.
Martin Luther King too is the symbol of a great collective suffering, but the movement he led, unlike Lincoln’s struggle to preserve the Union, hasn’t prospered since his death. King’s ultimate vision was justice for all in a post-racial society, but poverty has increased and equity decreased for all except the super-rich in the past four decades. Needless to say, this is especially the case for King’s fellow African-Americans.
Instead of approaching King’s vision more closely, Americans have retreated from it. Perhaps, on some level, that’s why his monument has been rendered so unapproachable— a fortified redoubt rather than the common space of a democracy.
Perhaps, too, that’s the reason for its appalling aesthetic mediocrity. It’s a monument to bad faith—not King’s, but ours.♦
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