I have decided to begin writing this current blog entry as I am waiting for my flight home from Washington, DC. This trip to the nation’s capital gave me an opportunity to go and visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, which was completed in 2009. I have been teaching this particular monument for a couple of years now in my ‘Race and Place’ class, but have primarily relied on photographs and articles to support my visual analysis of the project. On this trip, however, I took the Red Line from Woodley Park (where my academic conference was being held) to Metro Center and walked town to see the National Mall once again. I am very glad that I took the time to view the King memorial as it is an important new element to the National Mall. However, I must admit that I was very disappointed with what I saw. To anticipate an obvious critique, I will say that my disappointment was more than a simple case of overblown expectations; although I had read much to prepare me for my visit, what I had read prepared me for a more introspective historical interpretation of King’s legacy than what was actually offered.
While the constructed monument is an acceptable homage to King’s legacy as a ‘peacemaker’, it fails to address the necessity to continue legally defending civil rights (and now human rights) beyond the King years. The portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. that currently resides on the National Mall is of a ‘peacemaker’ of heroic proportions. The heroic scale of the King statue places him above the everyman as an exceptional figure in American history. While this case can certainly be made, it is the latent heroism embedded within the everyman that is important for us to reconsider today. The collective movements we currently have (one could point to Occupy Wall Street as an obvious example) have not yet compelled others to action – and this is true despite the rising inequality we have in the United States. A more tempered interpretation of the past would have revealed the struggles leaders of the Civil Rights movement had in gathering the public’s attention as well. The victory narrative that is used to celebrate this social movement was not certain in the early postwar period, but from our contemporary vantage point it may seem to have been an inevitable part of our social evolution. In our desire to glorify its victories, we may actually be undermining the opportunities we have to inspire people to engage in present action.
The ROMA group’s original design established a sound basis for creating a living monument to the Civil Rights movement. They not only looked to memorialize King’s sacrifice to the movement in the ‘Stone of Hope’ and ‘Mountain of Despair’ dialogue, but they created a series of aedicule mounted atop the semicircular arc surrounding his statue to visually index the many volunteers that shared in King’s vision. The initial intent of the design was to fill some of these aedicule spaces with memorials to a few well-known individuals (e.g. Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin, etc.), but also to leave a few to be filled in at a future date. This aesthetic gesture formally suggests that the Civil Rights movement is not yet ready to be consigned to history, but is still evolving. The ROMA group also created a clear geometrical relationship between MLK memorial and the Jefferson memorial to allude to each figures historical positions on civil rights for blacks; the former demanding legal defense of them and the latter only able to hope for a better future, despite his liberalism. King’s demand for legal recognition of civil rights was symbolically represented by presence of a promissory note held in his hands, which was initially going to be accompanied by a quote from King’s speech on the national mall in 1963 inscribed onto the side of his statue:
When the architects of our republic
wrote the magnificent words of the
Constitution and the
Declaration of Independence,
they were signing a promissory note
to which every American was a full heir.
This note was the promise that all men,
yes, black men as well as white men,
would be guaranteed the ‘inalienable Rights
of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness’.
28 August 1963
This promissory note was never installed, however, because it established a confrontational tone between King (a private citizen) and Jefferson (a U.S. President). In fact, the expression on King’s face was even fixed by congressional committees so that it would appear more ‘peaceable’ and less ‘confrontational’. What kind of public action does this sanitizing gesture inspire? King’s biblical message of ‘turning the other cheek’ had been presented without the benefit of the stubbornness and resistance that is required to create change in a democracy. Not only is there nothing in the monument to suggest that Civil Rights is anything but a closed historical movement, as mentioned above, but the quotes that have been provided do not inspire direct participatory action – they simply preserve a now acceptable and sanitized historical narrative of a single man’s actions to defend civil rights.
The historical complexities of King and the social movement he was associated with have been exiled to a small pavilion near the site, where books and other memorabilia are sold. It is in the pages of these books, and not on the book of stone preserved for public consumption, that one can actually understand what it takes to change American democracy.
When I walked over to this store there were no children or parents buying these books for their children. Maybe they have purchased electronic versions of these books for their Kindles? My guess is that it will take someone to create a cartoon or comic book to get their attention.
I don’t think it could be any worse than the cartoon version of American history that currently stands on the National Mall.