Oh, irony, thy name (this week) is the Martin Luther King, Jr National Memorial in Washington, DC. Today, the long-awaited MLK memorial opened in the nation’s capital. The 120 million dollar project includes a 28 ft (8.5m) tall granite monument on the National Mall carved by Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin (雷宜锌). It is the first monument to a non-US president on the National Mall and the first dedicated to a black American, except, well, it is memorialized in white … to fit in, we assume.

In addition to the large sculpture, 14 of King’s notable quotes are engraved on a 450-foot crescent shaped wall. The original design for the memorial was the work of ROMA Design Group, a San Francisco-based architecture firm, which, based on a line from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (“out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope”), created a design whose central component is a boulder sliced into three pieces. According to The Root, which has written an extensive history of how the monument came into being, “The two sides represent the proverbial mountain of despair, and the form of King emerges from a stone of hope that has moved ahead and apart from the other pieces.”

The sculptor for the project was decided in 2006 and Lei’s original version was rejected in 2008 by the seven-member all-white US Commission of Fine Arts in favor of something that looked less “confrontational.”

A 2008 article in Jet magazine explained:

“The original concept showed an image of Dr. King that was asymmetrically composed, dynamic in stance, meditative in character, and modeled as if emerging from the Stone of Hope,” the letter [by the US Commission of Fine Arts] stated. “[But] the development as shown now features a stiffly frontal image, static in pose, confrontational in character-and appearing as if it had been affixed to the surface of the Stone of Hope.”

In a post from 2009, Fred Dintenfass examined the backlash among some American artists who didn’t like the idea that the granite and artistry was being outsourced to China. He mentions that King was called a “reactionary running dog” during his lifetime by the Chinese authorities for his advocacy of nonviolent protest. Dintenfass mentions that China donated $25 million towards the construction of the MLK memorial, which may explain a lot. But others are still perturbed by the Chinese connection to this American hero. The complete history of how the monument came into being has been written by The Root.

Controversies aside, Daily Beast art critic Blake Gopnik, who has visited the site, thinks the monument “looks postage-stampish” and “uses the kind of visual clichés that speak to us most quickly and efficiently.” Which are statements that are true of most DC memorials, including the National World War II, which was unveiled in 2004 and uses the same popular monumental style we see in the MLK memorial. Another interesting fact is that the MLK statue is supposedly 11 feet taller than the statues in the neighboring Lincoln and Jefferson memorials.

The artist, who attended the opening today with his son, said “[t]his is my most important project. Not hardest, most important.” And according to the Washington Post, “He added that he hopes visitors notice first the expression on Dr. King’s face, ‘looking forward,’ and then his hands.”

The official dedication is this Sunday, August 28, and US President Obama is slated to speak.

Here is a virtual tour of the site:

YouTube video

More photos of the MLK Memorial here, herehere and one good one here.

And here is some commentary from the Twitterverse:


Btw, I guess I was naive to think that White Supremacists don’t tweet, but yes they do!

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

3 replies on “The Man Finally Wins, Martin Luther King Jr Memorialized in White”

  1. It seems like you can read it as MLK is bound in stone, trapped, confined, closed off.

    The alternative reading is that MLK is at the moment just before he breaks loose to give out hope. He looks at what he’s about to face, and knows that he can rise.

    It’s quite nice.

  2. we roll our eyes.  it is trite, white, and insulting.  there were no african american sculptors?  or did they just not look for one?  or would it look too “confrontational”, when MLK stood for confrontation, with injustice and inequality and evil?  or would it be too colorful?

    this monument now stands for everything dr. king was so adamantly opposed to.  it is very sad.

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