On August 28, approximately 400,000 people are expected to attend the dedication of the Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, twice the attendance of the March on Washington held 48 years ago to the day. The memorial has racked up other impressive numbers—27 years since Alpha Phi Alpha began campaigning for the memorial, 900 design competition submissions, $120 million raised mostly privately, 1,600 metric tons of granite—and not a little controversy.
The selection of Lei Yixin to create the figurative component of ROMA Design Group’s winning memorial scheme sparked comment that there must be an American whose abilities matched those of the famed Chinese sculptor. And some observed that Dr. King would not approve of China’s human rights record. Lei’s first efforts at recreating the namesake likeness attracted more attention: Preliminary models showed Dr. King emerging from a giant block of granite, in a style that the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) criticized for its similarity to Social Realism. Then there was disappointment over a failed promise of free shipping.
In response to CFA’s concerns, Lei submerged Dr. King’s legs more deeply into the granite, suggesting less of a defiant stance and more materialization from the stone. He also softened some facial features. It would seem improbable to conflate a likeness of a Nobel Peace Prize winner with a totalitarian regime. Moreover, the image was taken directly from a photograph of Dr. King standing behind his desk with his arms crossed. Yet the changes are welcome. In the final version, Dr. King’s is a poised and thoughtful defiance, rather than defiant to the point of historical revisionism.
Yet why does the monument employ figurative sculpture at all? The symbolic significance of the site—four acres on the Tidal Basin, between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials and within sight of the Washington Monument—is weighty. And consider ROMA Design Group’s architectural narrative. From Independence Avenue, the low retaining walls of a formal forecourt are configured in a wedge shape to funnel visitors toward a faux granite boulder split in two and dubbed the Mountain of Despair, which forms a compressed threshold opening to the Tidal Basin. Beyond it, circulation at the shoreline is more fluid, and this hardscaped area is hemmed in by crescent inscription walls and punctuated by cherry trees and crepe myrtles. Its centerpiece is another granite behemoth, the so-called Stone of Hope, which appears to have slid out of the Mountain of Despair and rotated slightly. From this shard Lei’s sculpture of Dr. King steps forth, at 30 feet, 8 inches tall, much larger than either Lincoln or Jefferson.
Struggle, seemingly impossible accomplishment, a force of nature. The symbolism is fairly easy to penetrate. The boulders’ names, taken from “I Have a Dream,” ensure comprehension. The inclusion of Dr. King’s likeness is like italicizing text that’s already in boldface.
In January, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton told NPR reporter Allison Keyes, “It's a memorial to the movement he led, and that is how he would regard it. One has to really come to grips with the deep humility of this man. He would never have wanted a memorial like this.” Even if the Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial were commensurate with King’s character, it is still bluntly interpretable: Just as Dr. King is the only private citizen to be honored with a national holiday, this is the only memorial on the National Mall whose purpose is not to commemorate a U.S. president or honor Americans’ wartime service. And because so many of the National Mall’s destinations have tread figurative ground already, this seems like a missed opportunity for less heroic open-endedness. In light of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the numerous abstractions designed in its wake, the memorial seems, above all, to embody towering literalism. Although the choreography of the memorial’s forecourt is reminiscent of Maya Lin’s epiphanic creation, the design remains largely uninformed by alternatives.
Blockbuster movie versus indie film, pop music versus contemporary composition, or beach read versus the great American novel, even the makers of memorials choose between accessibility and provocation.
The Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial is accessible. This isn’t necessarily a failure for the designers, artist, or client. Some will call its populism a triumph. Sometimes, though, a visionary can bridge that gap, and one such visionary was Dr. King himself. Any of the quotes selected for the memorial’s inscription walls—“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” or “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience and comfort, but where he stands in moments of challenge and controversy”—exemplifies that resonant marriage of heart and intellect, or put another way, an avoidance of ham-fistedness. These are the words that made movements that moved mountains.