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MLK Does Not Look Pleased

2011 October 10
by Sheila

MLK looking to FDR, the River, the South?
After a recent visit to the newly-opened Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC, I felt confused and a bit disappointed by what I observed to be a cold and literal translation of Dr. King’s life and works. And yet even as I struggled, it was clear from visitors around me that they were making meaning of their own as they experienced the Memorial for the first time.

King’s presence is powerful along the Tidal Basin. Unlike the understated “I Have a Dream” inscription in the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King’s stature is large–11 feet taller than nearby memorials.1

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As visitors walk around the Tidal Basin, his is the only face visible, the only person within the line of vision even among the “line of leadership” where the Memorial is situated. While not the first or only face of a person of color on the National Mall, his is certainly the most prominent. When the cherry blossoms are in bloom, he will tower above the pink and white and beckon visitors from the Tidal Basin to come for a visit.

Once they arrive, however, what will this Memorial say to them? What will they learn of Dr. King and the struggles he championed? For now, it seems as if his mere presence as a memorial in the monumental core is something that matters more than the messages conveyed through the Memorial’s design.

Unfortunately, this memorial seems to follow a pattern that many civil rights historians note is present in public representations and remembrances of this struggle. Messages are simplified, Jacqueline Dowd Hall argues, as the collective narrative of the civil rights movement “distorts and suppresses as much as it reveals.”2 The design embraces an arc of accomplishment, of work completed, and does not project a message of unfinished business.

The focal point of the Memorial is King’s body emerging from, or immersed in, a block of granite that has been cut from the “Mountain of Despair,” that he has literally left behind him: the remnant “of a great monolithic struggle.” Now standing (even though we cannot view his lower legs and feet) in the Stone of Hope, he “gazes over the Tidal Basin toward the horizon, seeing a future society of justice and equality for which he encouraged all citizens to strive.”3 His body is squared, his suit jacket straight and still. There is no movement in him or immediately around him.  He stands in state, frozen in time.

Even as he is still, he is gazing.  Where does he look? If King were seeing a future society of justice and equality, wouldn’t he be smiling with his arms open or by his sides? He stands with arms folded and lips almost pursed in a disapproving way.  Even young visitors recognized this stance as they mimicked King’s stance, as if they were being warned by a parent or grandparent. IMG_1881The design choice could work if he were looking at us, the visitors, asking us to work towards social and economic justice with him. Or, if he were positioned so as to cast that gaze at Jefferson. Colleagues of  mine agree that the Memorial could have some bite if it interacted with the other monuments within this “line of leadership”, by admonishing political and personal choices of a figure like Jefferson.

Instead, King looks towards the FDR, but not directly. He looks towards the river, but also to Virginia and to the south. I would hope that this is not intentional, because this interpretation is too simplistic, and yet, I find that many of the design decisions were very literal and simplistic.

Another example of this simplicity is found in Inscription Wall that cradles the monolithic figures. According to the Memorial Project, the fourteen quotations engraved on a curved wall transform “a mere monument into a living memorial”. IMG_1882

Meant to be inspirational, these words offer only a snippet of longer speeches, and yet again feed into a repeated pattern of representing King in public through bits of his speeches that are, as noted by Hall, “endlessly reproduced and selectively quoted” that “lose their political bite.”4 Visitors are left with snippets of text, only.

When I think of King, I hear him. Here in DC, he is silent. As a modern figure who was recorded and broadcast, there is audio and video available to enrich visitor experiences. Part of his success was due not only to his dedication to his work, but it was in his vocal delivery, the way he preached, the way he inspired people. None of that power is present.

Additionally, it is not possible to read more than a short quote. Unlike his compatriots in the “line of leadership,” King is not surrounded by longer texts. Lincoln sits among the text of the Gettysburg Address and his second Inaugural speech. Jefferson stands amidst multiple excerpts of the Declaration of Independence and other written works. Where are the transcripts of King’s speeches? There are ways to make that material available to visitors in the 21st Century that did not exist in the 1920s and 1930s when the Lincoln and Jefferson were planned. (I am thinking of both hardware integrated into the space or materials available for personal download and access via mobile devices.) IMG_1884

While I was busy being critical, I noticed that many others visiting the Memorial were excited to be there and enjoyed making their own meaning from this space. Individuals and groups posed by and pointed to their favorite quotations on the wall. Some felt the textures of granite in the Mountain as they walked through the boulder. Students rushed around the Memorial reading and rubbing King’s words quickly as they finished an assignment. Others stood in awe as they looked up at King’s statue.

On October 16, the King Memorial will be dedicated. The buzz surrounding its opening and dedication will last for the coming weeks and even for the next couple of years.  Already, a few controversies have arisen. One notably for the misuse of the “I was a Drum Major for Justice” quote5. Even the Council of Historians couldn’t prevent this type of unfortunate error. If there is no change in the Memorial’s inscription, however, this controversy will fade and soon be forgotten. These design decisions matter, because after the opening hype, the Memorial will stand on its own and will communicate with its public with what remains carved in the stone.

Memorializing always entails a bit of forgetting, through what is missing. In this case, I was disappointed and a little confused that race and class are absent. Perhaps this was an effort to make the Memorial and words of Dr. King accessible to all. There is nothing wrong with focusing on humanitarian messages that embrace peace, justice, and equality. But, there was and still is a reason for fighting for such goals and the Memorial doesn’t help because it did not make me feel a shared responsibility or uncomfortable with such a burden.

I hope that the powerful physical presence of Dr. King in the monumental core encourages its visitors to investigate the complex life and work of a great, and flawed, man, and feel a little uncomfortable with the world we live in today.6

Do you think King is pleased with this legacy in DC?

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  1. “MLK Jr. memorial confronts controversy – USATODAY.com”, n.d., http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2011-07-04-MLK-Jr-statue-critics_n.htm. []
  2. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” The Journal of American History 91, no. 4 (March 1, 2005): 1233-1263. []
  3. For more detailed description from the Memorial project, see: http://www.mlkmemorial.org/site/c.hkIUL9MVJxE/b.7548977/k.8C6B/Design_Elements.htm []
  4. Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement,” 1234. []
  5. See: “Maya Angelou says Dr. Martin Luther King ‘quote’ on memorial misleads » The Commercial Appeal”, n.d., http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2011/aug/31/angelou-king-quote-misleads/.1. “Martin Luther King a drum major? If you say so. – The Washington Post”, n.d., http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/martin-luther-king-a-drum-major-if-you-say-so/2011/08/25/gIQAmmUkeJ_story.html. []
  6. I highly recommend Dyson’s book on King for a more critical look at his life and works: Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr (Free Press, 2001). []
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