By Nat Krieger
An archeologist honing her professional chops in 4015 could be forgiven for concluding that the marble and granite ruins in Washington D.C.’s Monument Valley were temples, each devoted to a deified human, or perhaps a god who took human form. If only it were so simple.
Those of us living in the third century of the republic know these were mortals. For one thing they’re all dead. Among the sons of the South for example, Thomas Jefferson has remained dead for 189 years, Martin Luther King for 48. The sanctity of their memorials’ dutifully hushed spaces is fortified and mocked by the swinging elbows of ideas, dreams, hypocrisies, even dodgy ruminations on the roles of the architect and the visitors–all stuff we can’t declare dead, or even quantify.
Echoes from gunshots in a Charleston church whip through the Jefferson Memorial where we find the founding father whose greed and guilt marked him with a racism so extreme he denied his own children. Cries of celebration as the Confederate battle flag is lowered in the birthplace of Secession are also carried by a southern wind up the Potomac, past Jefferson, and across the Tidal Basin, where they pause to caress the improbably alabaster statue of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Products of the shadow world trapping the memorialized dead, the preacher from Georgia and the Virginian slave owner have exchanged colors. If his own bronze statue became breathing flesh Jefferson would be a mulatto—and according to the one drop rule by which the author of the Declaration of Independence lived this alternate self would be black. And if a master of Voudon was able to breathe life into the statue of Dr. King, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize would be 30 feet tall and whiter than Lester Maddox.
Before you see Dr. King you find his words. Coming out of a wooded foot path that follows the curve of the Tidal Basin’s shoreline, you pull even with a polished grey stone wall incised with the hope he voiced on many different occasions:
“We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The next section of wall speaks of how only love can drive out hate, and of the next four quotations that together comprise the memorial’s southern wall only one, articulating King’s opposition to the Vietnam War, mentions any specific or uniquely American issue. The Martin Luther King of world peace and international justice is all over the memorial. Except for one 1955 quote from Montgomery on the northern wall the civil rights leader, not to mention the clear eyed tactician, is absent. Odd in the nation’s capital, where slave markets continued to function until 1850 and slavery was only abolished one year into the Civil War (with generous compensation to the owners), a city where public accommodations remained segregated for a century more. Perhaps it’s the aftermath of the terrorist murders in a historic center of anti-racist resistance, a 200 year old black church where King preached, but the absence of the local and the Southern in his memorial leaves a void where some soul and guts could be.
And if there was ever an American public figure with guts, it was Dr. King. No other individual memorialized on the nation’s mall ever faced 15 years of continuous threats on his life and his family. None of his fellow honorees was jailed 29 times, stabbed once—almost fatally, hit in the temple with a rock, and struck on multiple occasions.
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience and comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Inscribed on the memorial’s northern wall, King lived his words in their full painful meaning during a 1962 speech in Birmingham, Alabama, when an American Nazi named Roy James ran onto the stage and sent one punch after another crashing into King’s face. There came a moment when the 6’2”, 200 lb. attacker paused. Bleeding from his mouth and nose the 5’7’’ King regained his balance, turned purposefully towards his attacker, dropped his hands, and looked into the Nazi’s eyes. By then King’s stunned aides had reached James. “Don’t touch him, don’t touch him”, King’s baritone rang out. “We have to pray for him.” And that’s exactly what they did. King then took his attacker into a room off the stage where they spoke. Later, King refused to press charges, although the city of Birmingham did.
In the words of King Biographer Marshall Frady, “To hallow a figure is almost always to hollow him.” It is because Martin Luther King was a human being who struggled with his own demons and doubts and fears that his bravery makes him, at 5’7’’, a giant among men. In this sense his statue’s enormous size feels right; true it does not make him an intimate, like the brown, life sized statue of Rosa Parks in the Capitol building, but there is no denying the ancient link between honor and bigness. Part of what makes the Lincoln Memorial so evocative is Abe’s Olympian size. There is also Dr. King’s public style which was both grand and formal. This was not because he was a stuffed shirt. Those who knew him testify to MLK’s humor and approachability in private. King’s public persona served as an elegant, overpowering corrective to centuries old caricatures of African American men by the dominant culture.
Unlike the Lincoln Memorial where the 16th president sits in awesome shadow, or Jefferson’s rotunda where the slanting sun is muted and sliced by dome and column, the King Memorial is entirely outside, fitting perhaps for a man who said that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” Perhaps. There is also something to be said for shadows–they enhance feelings of grander and mystery and King was certainly complex and privately tortured enough to warrant a few.
“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”
These words cap the memorial’s southern wall and are probably the best defense for the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation’s choice of a Chinese sculptor and a Chinese crew to design and carve the statue. With a roster of world class African American sculptors to pick from the selection remains controversial, not least because the sculptor, Lei Yixin, is so fully approved by the Chinese Government that he has overseen the production of over a dozen Mao statues all over China—thus explaining what some see as the heavy, Socialist realist style of the carving.
In the 21st Century it’s difficult to see how the Foundation could plead ignorance to the estimated the 20 to 40 million people who died in Mao’s Great Leap Forward or the 1.5 million Chinese murdered by Mao’s followers during the Cultural Revolution. Such numbers are mind numbing until we put names to them. Bian Zhongyun, deputy headmistress of a Beijing girls’ school: accused of being a capitalist roader she was beaten by her students with nail-studded clubs, burned with boiling water, her body finally dumped in the girl’s bathroom. According to Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine, party archives house a report, probably perused by the Great Helmsman himself, on one Wang Ziyou. Crime: unearthing a potato. Punishment: Ears chopped off, legs tied together with wire, 22 pound stone dropped on back, branded. A boy is discovered stealing a handful of grain: His father is forced to bury him alive. A government inspector in Sichuan trumpets a refinement worthy of the Nazis: “commune members too sick to work are deprived of food. It hastens their death.” And in our own century the most obvious analog to Dr. King in China is fellow Nobel laureate and pacifist the Dali Lama, who the Chinese Communist Party recently compared to Hitler, an update on their previous “devil with a human face”.
It gets stranger. Even though the American granite industry is nearly as old as the nation, and there is an original colony called the Granite State, apparently only Chinese granite could do the job of representing Dr. King, and only Chinese carvers, with no union representation or lung protection worthy of the name, could carve it. Considering that Dr. King made that fatal trip to Memphis in support of striking workers, irony topples over into something more disturbing.
So it’s not surprising that the unbreakable bond between economic and racial injustice that consumed Martin Luther King over the last two years of his life is missing from the memorial as well. The visitor will search in vain for a stone etched with “We must recognize that we can’t solve our problems now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power,” a message as unwelcome in Beijing as it is in Washington.
If it’s not the worst thing about death it’s right up there: the complete inability of the deceased to have any say in the memory of their lives.
And yet…and yet…the up close power of the statue itself is palpable. A face made from stone is always a high wire act of imagination—how can what writer and chemist Primo Levi called “stupid matter, slothfully hostile as human stupidity is hostile,” conjure a living, breathing soul? Despite all the factors that should have produced an alien generic titan, the statue’s face is serious, determined, and ineffably King.
“I’ve seen probably 50 sculptures of my dad, and I would say 47 of them are not good reflections”, Martin Luther King III told USA Today in 2011, the year the memorial opened. “This particular artist — he’s done a good job.”
“Out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” The words from King’s best known speech are carved into the southern flank of the unpolished monolith from which his figure emerges, a visual reminder that the arc of justice is forever under construction.
The partially formed King echoes another unfinished Atlas, carved by Michelangelo. Residing in the Accademia in Florence the legs of this nearly 500 year old Atlas are more fully emerged than King’s, yet the bearded head of the accursed one is barely visible, more than half crushed under a mantle of stone he is straining to hold up. In the words of sculptor David Leeds, “…the weight of even his own creation presses down upon his shoulders…There is no feeling of equilibrium here, only a battle of giant tectonic forces threatening to explode in both directions.” The granite Dr. King’s has none of that tension. Maybe that’s as it should be, matching the living man’s unruffled, grace under fire demeanor; yet Leeds’ description of Michelangelo’s titan nails the process of social upheaval King helped lead. Only through the Monday morning lenses of lazy optimists can the progress won by the civil rights movement be viewed as inevitable or stately.
And even more than we knew when he was alive, Dr. King took the weight of the world on his shoulders. Despite advice to the contrary from nearly every major player in the Civil Rights camp, including the NAACP, King felt compelled to speak out against the Vietnam War in 1967, after seeing photographs of Vietnamese children burned by U.S. napalm. The Poor People’s March on Washington, King’s last great project, was also opposed by many of his friends, either for deflecting attention away from more narrowly focused civil rights issues, or because they saw the great danger in taking on the economic underpinnings of the most powerful nation on earth. In the cities King’s message seemed increasingly outflanked by various streams of Black Nationalism, while on campuses important elements of the student left were also backing the idea of armed self-defense, if not insurrection.
King was also living in dread that J. Edgar Hoover’s efforts to get the mainstream press to publish details of his private life would bear fruit. For reasons that will most likely never be known in their entirety, over the last several years of Martin Luther King’s life he grew convinced that the odds of living what he called in his final speech, “a long life” were not good. So it’s not surprising that Martin Luther King was in depression for much of his final two years. The impervious rock of ignorance and inertia bore down with every greater force upon him, but he never wavered, never even slowed down.
The King Memorial is free from the misleading mashup of quotes, and outright changes of wording that mar Jefferson’s. The designers abridged King’s words just once and they found the trouble so richly deserved by those who tamper with primary sources. On the northern side of the rock mountain from which King emerges were carved the words, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” The passage is taken from a sermon King preached exactly two months before his death and is guilty of two sins: it compresses several sentences in the original speech into one, and more importantly the compression leaves an impression that directly contradicts the point King was making.
King was warning against what he called the drum major instinct, with a diagnosis that sounds downright Freudian, or maybe Buddhist?
“If [the drum-major instinct] is not harnessed, you will end up day in and day out trying to deal with your ego problem by boasting. Have you ever heard people that you know — and I’m sure you’ve met them — that really become sickening because they just sit up all the time talking about themselves?”
On a group level this ego feeding goes from sickening to dangerous.
“Do you know that a lot of the race problem grows out of the drum-major instinct? A need that some people have to feel superior. A need that some people have to feel that they are first and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first.”
With his own death much on his mind King concludes the sermon by writing his own eulogy.
“… I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr., tried to love somebody…Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”
Writers have this annoying habit of making a bid deal about words and Maya Angelou helped lead the chorus calling for the passage to be corrected or removed. She told the Washington Post that “the quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit. He had no arrogance at all. He had a humility that comes from deep inside. The ‘if’ clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.”
The decision to compress King’s words was made by Ed Jackson, Jr., the memorial’s lead architect, and sculptor Lei Yixin, who decided that fewer words would be more aesthetically pleasing, space wise. The protests started soon after the memorial opened. After two years of defending the mangled wording Jackson agreed to have the passage removed, leaving the northern flank of the manmade mountain a blank field of tastefully scored granite.
“True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” As the last quotation on the northern wall just before visitors leave, heading towards the Korean War Memorial and the Lincoln beyond, the words from King’s 1958 Stride Toward Freedom, are a milder version of what he said nine years later outside of the Santa Rita county jail: “There can be no justice without peace and there can be no peace without justice.” As these words ring out from the streets of our cities this summer, King’s wisdom continues to be painfully clear.
King’s Santa Rita speech linked the massive suffering of poor Vietnamese with the injustice under which poor Americans lived their lives. And if his memorial gives short shrift to the regional specifics of Dr. King’s life, it does a much better job reminding us that he is among the handful of leaders who also belongs to all humanity.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Carved on the panel of the northern wall closest to the statue, these words come from Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and underline connections that move through time as well as space. King saw himself as heir to a lineage that stretched from Thoreau to Gandhi. In1959 when he landed in India to begin a one month sojourn the Baptist minister announced, “To other countries I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim.’’
A year after his death the braided cords King embroidered into destiny’s garment were picked up by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, and 21 years later by the people of Prague who gathered in huge and peaceful numbers singing “We Shall Overcome”, and drove a dictatorship from power.
Sometimes the arc of the moral universe doubles back on itself, and once it even made the briefest of landfalls just outside of Philadelphia: At the time of his murder Martin Luther King was on the Advisory Council of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, a Christian pacifist organization founded at the outbreak of World War I. A generation later Reverend André Trocmé and his wife Magda, two early members of the French branch, helped save hundreds of Jews by hiding them in and around the high plateau villages of the Haute-Loire during World War II. In 1981 Magda Trocmé received an honorary PhD from Haverford College. Sharing the stage with her was the retired secretary for the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP who, in the summer of 1955, informed the newly minted pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church that he’d been named to the chapter’s executive committee, drawing the attention of a young man still more focused on building his own career to the broader task. The secretary’s name was Rosa Parks.
The granite Martin Luther King does not look northwest towards the Lincoln Memorial, nor east towards the capital building. He faces southeast, gazing across the Tidal Basin to the Jefferson Memorial. If Dr. King continues his stride out the rock he could easily cross the Basin–at 10 feet deep he wouldn’t even get his suit coat wet. Climbing the marble steps of Jefferson’s place he bends down, extending his hand through the columns to the puny man within. Would Thomas Jefferson grasp the arc? Would he understand the work still required to bind up the wounds of the nation whose birth he helped to midwife? Would he take Dr. King’s hand?
Nat Krieger works for San Diego Unified where, on good days, he fixes computers. Nights spent wandering though 10th Century Andalusia resulted in a recently completed work of historical fiction.