The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial–What Went Wrong?

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC., courtesy of The Charleston Chronicle

I felt a little lurch in my stomach when I saw the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial statue on TV yesterday. Why couldn’t we have done a better job in representing and paying respects to one of our most important historical figures?

My first reaction was a purely visual one, and my problems with the statue are simply that it looks unfinished (not in a good way), and it is carved from white stone. Why does Dr. King have no lower legs or feet? Why are they not planted on the ground? It makes him look rootless. I also believe the sculptor(s) need a better eye for the human form, because his waist looks thrust forward by the rock. Perhaps he is meant to be leaning on it? Something isn’t right visually, and that in turn, puts the message off.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man who always stood on his own two feet. He spoke truth to power; he took unpopular stands. I’m scratching my head over why he would be leaning against a rock, with his head, back and especially feet utterly disappearing into it. This doesn’t jibe with, or enlighten, our most famous and cherished images of him, which are of him speaking confidently at a podium (with nothing to his back) and marching in protest. Though there is no need for the sculpture to literally represent these memories, a good one might echo or nod to them. Even if the artwork went in another direction, it should be illuminating, uncovering a facet that we may not have thought of right away. Because this sculpture makes you scratch your head and wrinkle your nose, it’s not doing its job in memorializing this man.

And a question: Why is this proud black man, who risked his reputation and eventually his life to carry his message of equality for blacks in a white-dominated society, why is this man carved from white stone?

After reading more about the planning of the memorial on the official website, I can tell you that they have already planned answers. They have an answer for everything, and that is the problem.

The site will tell you all about their reasoning, the meaning behind their symbols and decisions, and the kind of Experience that You the Visitor should feel when you visit the memorial. It’s a lot of garbage. They’re telling us too much what we ought to feel, and not showing us enough within the artwork so that we can feel it. High school students do this, when they construct a painting based on highly specific and personal codes or symbols, but need to verbally decode it for viewers who have no knowledge of the invented language (“the yellow square is my mother; the blue diamond is my father”, etc).

High schools students can be forgiven these early attempts to establish a visual language, and with maturity they will learn to communicate with the language that’s already there and understood by viewers, even if only on a subconscious level. For example, rock is strong and the sculpture is big, so there is an immediate, gut-level sense of strength associated with a sculpture of this size. But to have a man with no legs disappear into the strong stone, even to seem to be leaning into it, that subconsciously tells us that the man is weaker than the stone. To see the difference, compare with this image of four pharaohs carved out of stone at Abu Simbel in Egypt.

Four gigantic pharoahs carved out of stone sit in thrones at the door to Abu Simbel Temple.

Mature sculptors are more fluent in using the many visual principles at their disposal in order to convey a message. What we have here is immature artwork. I see these symptoms in much of contemporary art, where so much needs to be explained because it is poorly communicated on a visual level.

Man paying respects alone at Vietnam Memorial, Washington, DC.

But back to the context of Washington, D.C., where every new memorial is naturally compared to the incomparable Vietnam Memorial by Maya Lin. The Vietnam Memorial is a wall that is black and shiny, like a mirror, etched with the names of soldiers who were killed during the Vietnam War. The wall grows in height as you descend along the path in front of it, because it is set into the ground. The actual experience of descending in front of the wall, finding that you’re suddenly enveloped by it, by black, is almost indescribable. I imagine that is how our country felt as we became incrementally more immersed in the war itself. To look at the names of young, dead soldiers in the wall, while seeing your own face looking back at you from the polished granite, is like looking into a mirror and thinking “If just a few details were different, that could have been me”. Seams in the wall allow for flowers to be placed next to specific names, which recalls the experience of a cemetery (echoing the names etched in stone). At the deepest point of the memorial, with the wall towering over you, it turns, and you turn with it. You will slowly rise again to ground level and the real world, able to see above the black wall once more, but feeling changed on a fundamental level. These gut-level reactions can’t be predicted or explained, and the memory of my experiences there is so strong that I shed a few tears while writing this. To learn more arcane details about the memorial later (the wall turns because it is shaped like a V, which stands for Vietnam, for example) does nothing to contradict what I felt there, and what my own eyes and body told me.

In the way that everything at the Vietnam Memorial works on a visual level, and any further discussion serves only to reinforce what you’ve seen and felt, the King memorial feels like empty words.

While I’m focusing here mainly on the visual elements of the sculpture of Dr. King, there are other aspects of the “experience” that seem like poor decisions or empty gestures to me as well. There is a crescent-shaped wall etched with quotes from Dr. King’s speeches, yet any reference to the “I Have a Dream” speech has been deliberately omitted, the website tells us, because that speech can be learned about in school and books. What a wasted opportunity! It could have been so powerful to see and feel those words. The website also points out that the address assigned to the memorial is 1964 Independence Ave., symbolizing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This doesn’t help me to understand, or deepen my appreciation; this is an empty gesture.

I will say that the planting of additional cherry blossom trees was a nice touch, along with the explanation that their peak blossoms are assured for the April 4th anniversary of Dr. King’s death each year. That is a worthy detail that enhances the experience of the memorial, but most of the other frothy explanations serve to confirm my initial, negative feelings about the sculpture.

I have a feeling that the next time I visit DC, I will again cry in front of the Vietnam Memorial. I suspect that I’ll also shed a few tears in front of the King Memorial, but they will be for the memorial that we didn’t give him.