The King Memorial: Greatness revealed

T.A. Barnhart

The King Memorial: Greatness revealed

Today was the dedication of the Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, Memorial in Washington, DC. Not surprisingly, the memorial — the largest stone statue in the world, which surprised me — is already controversial. Maya Angelou isn’t happy with it. One right-wing blogger noted its resemblance to Soviet-era monuments. Another thought it was really clever to compare the statue to Han Solo frozen in carbonite.

I can’t wait to visit the memorial. Looking at the pictures of it, I think it might be perfect. The quote on the side of the statue — I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness — is a paraphrase and a bit odd (it’s the part Angelou doesn’t like). But overall, just standing back and observing the pieces of stone as a whole, the memorial is wonderful.

Dr King is shown emerging from a great block of stone, and that piece of stone itself has itself emerged from the whole. The original, uncut stone is the people for whom Dr King spoke; and it’s not just the descendants of slaves but all those who are victims of injustice. The stone does not identify any group as being the most privileged, so to speak, group of victims. They all were the same for Dr King.

And while he is out in front of those whom he led and those for whom he labored, he is not removed from them. He is still within the grasp of the stone, and the piece in which he stands is clearly seen as part of the whole. He makes no effort to remove or isolate himself. He’s revealed as the one at the fore, the stone from which he emerged having been removed to show him standing still and strong, his feet planted in the whole, his back given strength by the mass of those behind him.

He’s revealed. To me, that’s critical. Leaders do not appoint themselves; great leaders emerge almost as an accident of history. Dr King was surrounded by many great persons, many other leaders who deserve to be celebrated. But it was his gift for speaking out in a manner that married the (rock) hard realities of life in subjugated America with the beauty and eloquence of poetry and sermon, his courage in stepping forward despite the personal danger, and his refusal to bow himself to either injustice or violence that revealed Dr King as the singular leader of his generation.

And it was his assassination, of course, that set his place in history. We memorialize him because, over 43 years ago, we lost him to the hate and violence against which he set himself. He knew his cause was just, and he knew the movement which he led would triumph. He stood firm in the foundational stone of the people who walked and worked with him, and in the earth-deep solidity of the cause of justice.

When the Vietnam Memorial was unveiled, many were dismayed by the stark, untraditional event that Maya Lin created. But time has proven that she understood what was needed to bring healing to the hearts and minds of those who visited that place. She got that memorial absolutely right. I think in time, we’ll understand that even if the quote on the side is kind of odd-sounding, the memorial itself is almost perfect.

Those who’ve seen Lincoln sitting in the great seat of his memorial feel something profound about the man who saved the union. I think those who stand before this memorial to Dr King will feel uplifted as well. The representation of our greatest civil rights leader, not as a hero but as someone who remained a part of the people even as he stood at their fore, is the kind of genius that comes from a great truth revealing itself as only art can make possible.

  • (Show?)

    T.A.,it's quite possible that those who have known the flesh and blood person will never be quite happy with the marble representation. That said, your articulation of the symbolism speaks well. I was indeed moved at the Lincoln Memorial and I am gratified, and our nation is graced, that Martin Luther King Jr, and his life's work and teaching are held in honor on our nation's Capitol mall in this way. I am glad for this day. Thank you for writing about it.

  • (Show?)

    I am visiting the King Memorial on 11/2 and I cannot wait to see it. I think it is important for MLKs work to be remembered and this memorial will help. The amount of people who travel through DC and primarily learn our history through the museums and memorials around the mall need this memorial to have a complete picture of where we have been.

connect with blueoregon