Sunday, August 28, 2011

A stubborn man stepped out for justice

With the east coast under water and the dedication of the MLK memorial postponed, this is less timely than it might have been ... but here it is.

I won't really know until I see it, but I think I like the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the National Mall in Washington.

There are a lot of people who say I ought not to like it. The right thinks it is an example of totalitarian communist iconography. Feeding that thought, the artist selected by the private U.S. memorial foundation that raised the money for the project is Lei Yixin, a 57-year-old master sculptor from Changsha in Hunan province. He's done admiring figures of Mao, among others. U.S. artists and some African Americans thought the commission should have gone to an African American artist. The stonemasons union was appropriately horrified to learn that the sculptor imported not only Chinese granite but also Chinese workers whose pay arrangements seem dicey. Apparently during the planning the younger members of the King family caused a stink by demanding to be paid for the use of King's words carved in stone.

But I saw a picture of this panorama and instantly thought -- "the arc of justice is long -- and a man stepped forward to speed things up on the way to freedom!" Apparently the official metaphor is that "hope came out of a mountain of despair" so I guess I wasn't far off.

3king face.jpg
I had feared that any memorial would dilute the strength of King, would "domesticate, disinfect, deodorize, sanitize, and make [him] safe" in the language of Cornel West. I guess not. This figure is stubborn, determined, uncompromising.

After all, Dr. King had to be one tough guy. He not only led the movement for legal civil rights and racial equality in the south, he took the movement north to confront racial hypocrisy. He also denounced the Democratic party's Vietnam War. He was killed while supporting striking garbage collectors and organizing a Poor People's Campaign. As Adam Server summarizes, King was

a man of the left certainly, but not a man of the Democratic Party ...

He wasn't widely popular with a lot of U.S. people when he died and he wouldn't be popular now if he were around.

I like it that he looks a little annoyed in the new statue. I'm sure he'd find a lot to be annoyed about these days. I'm amazed that such a figure ever got implanted on the Mall.

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