Controversy brewing over King statue

A fight over a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. isn't just about the memorial -- it's about his whole legacy.


Alex Koppelman
May 21, 2008 8:33PM (UTC)

Here's my latest video for our partners at Current. In it, I discuss a brewing fight over a statue planned for an official memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which will be in Washington, D.C. The statue -- made by a Chinese sculptor, Lei Yixin -- is controversial because of the way Lei depicts King; he's almost striding out of the stone. The U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, which has jurisdiction over such memorials, has described it as "a stiffly frontal image, static in pose, confrontational in character" and said it wanted a "dynamic," "meditative" King.

As I say in the video, I think this is symbolic of a larger fight over King's legacy -- one that King, really, is losing. The King we see these days, the one who's taught to schoolchildren, is one Cornel West describes as having gone through a "Santa Clausification." Today's King isn't confrontational, he's not the kind of powerful, radical figure he was in life, and he's certainly been separated from his actual ideology. (Some Republicans even try to claim him as their own.) As West says, "He just becomes a nice little old man with a smile with toys in his bag, not a threat to anybody, as if his fundamental commitment to unconditional love and unarmed truth does not bring to bear certain kinds of pressure to a status quo. So the status quo feels so comfortable, as though it's a convenient thing to do rather than acknowledge him as to what he was, what the FBI said, 'The most dangerous man in America.'"

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What's also worth noting is the underpinning of King's ideology. The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson pointed out that the pose used for the statue comes from a photograph taken of King in which he's standing in front of one of his heroes, Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi may, like King, have been a pacifist -- but he was certainly confrontational in character.

There was some controversy about the choice of Lei to make the statue in the first place. But, Robinson says, now "African-American commentators are rushing to defend Lei's 'confrontational' vision -- or, at least, to slam the arts commission for trying to make a righteously angry man look like Mister Rogers without the cardigan."


Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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