It’s been a long time coming, but African-Americans have finally found their place on the National Mall. The National Museum of African American History & Culture is set to open in 2015, and the Martin Luther King Memorial was dedicated in late 2011—the result of years of campaigning and fundraising. On the south-west of the Mall, with an official address—1964 Independence Avenue—that references the year of the passing of the Civil Rights Act, the location was chosen to create a symbolic, visual "line of leadership" with the Lincoln Memorial. It was here that King made his legendary "I have a dream" speech in 1963 at the culmination of the March on Washington.
Quotes from King’s various speeches and sermons are carved, in no particular order, on a 450-foot-long crescent-shaped "inscription wall" on the memorial site. Covering four acres, the landscaped site—with plenty of seating and planted with elms and cherry trees—is dominated by a colossal statue, a 30-foot relief sculpture of King hewn from an oblong of cream granite. Behind him is another large chunk of granite, roughly carved into a mountain, split in two. The oblong "stone" is positioned to look as if it has been pulled out from the middle of the "mountain". The symbolism becomes clear when visitors read the King quote on the stone, "Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope."
The inscription on the other side of the statue—"I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness"—has been the cause of some controversy. It emerged that the quote was actually a paraphrase of "If you want to say I was a drum major, say I was a drum major for justice. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things won’t matter"’ The change didn’t go down well with critics, among them writer Maya Angelou, a consultant on the project, who remarked that the paraphrase made King look like "an arrogant twit". It was announced first that the quote would be corrected, and then, in December 2012, that it would actually be removed, the original sculptor, Lei Yixin, having said that this was the best way to ensure the structural integrity of the memorial.
The choice of Lei as sculptor was also controversial, partly because the Chinese artist had previously made a sculpture of Mao; the fact that the Chinese government made a $25-million contribution to meet a shortfall in donations also received critical attention. There were those (including the Commission for Fine Arts, which eventually gave its official approval to the design) who criticized the Socialist Realist feel of the piece. Some complained about the sternness of King’s appearance, or the fact that an African-American artist wasn’t used. Others have praised the memorial.
All that is certain is that when it comes to the "language of enshrinement", and a figure who generates so much emotion, there are a lot of competing voices.
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1964 Independence Avenue, SW