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The glory of Kings memorial speaks of an inglorious history


The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial being dedicated this weekend will be only the fifth exterior monument immortalizing African Americans in Washington, D.C., and the 1,001st outside statue in the District commemorating a national public figure. The monument’s location at the National Mall will be a first for a major monument honoring a non-president and an African American.

The monument actually opened Monday to a small crowd, but officials expect a very large turnout this Sunday during the official dedication that coincides with the 48th anniversary of King’s transformative “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. The American public has embraced the project, according to a new Gallup Poll released Monday showing a 91 percent approval. The poll, conducted Aug. 4-7, found that 91 percent of Blacks and 89 percent of Whites approve of the monument.

The memorial has been a long time in the making, the mid-1980s brainchild of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. During the fall of 1996, the Senate and House approved joint resolutions authorizing the building of the memorial honoring the civil rights leader. President Bill Clinton signed the resolution in 1998, and in 1999 the King Memorial Foundation began accepting design proposals.

The design of the 30-foot sculpture took form from a line in one of King’s speeches: “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” The monument sculpture depicts King emerging from the mountain of despair and thus forming “a stone of hope”–his own monumental image. However, as in the nation itself, the monument evidences the slow recognition of African American contributions. The King memorial monument is surrounded by memorials of four former presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington.

A survey of monuments in the nation’s capital turned up only four others depicting African Americans solely or grouped with subjects from other ethnicities:

* The Emancipation Memorial
* The Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial
* The Three Soldiers
* The African American Civil War Memorial

Additionally, although it is not in Washington, D.C. also included is a brief discussion of the Statue of Liberty, which some believe was originally portrayed an African American. There are several plaques in the District that pay homage to African Americans; however, the focus here is on monuments.

Kirk Savage, associate professor of the history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh and author of “Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century,” has researched the sculptured monuments that increasingly came to dominate streets, parks and town squares in 19th-century America. His book also discusses the depiction of Blacks immortalized in plaster, slate, marble, and bronze, and the metamorphosis of the depictions of African slaves from subhuman painted figures with protruding mandibles (ape-like) to those with the normal features of the modern men.

According to the Browne Papers, a collection of manuscripts discussing the “Negro” in modern art, there were no sculptures depicting slaves in bronze or marble during that time in the United States.

Henry Kirke Brown, an artist during the mid-1800s, fashioned Native Americans as Greek gods for his bronze sculptures, which seemed acceptable in the art world during the 19th century. Brown also attempted to use his influence as a member of the United States Art Commission to make the figure of the “Negro” visible in public sculpture, but to no avail.

Savage believes that most artists realized in the 19th century that African slaves were not ideal candidates for sculptured models due to their status of slave and their later fall to the concept of being subhumans.

Consequently, it was not until the 1870s that a slate, marble or bronze public monument or sculpture of an African American became a reality.

However, there were artist-entrepreneurs who made markets for themselves by creating small-scale plaster sculptures 12 inches tall or less. These renditions portrayed African Americans as strong-willed, proud people. Purchasers of these desk-top figures were abolitionists, and freedmen who could afford them.

Sculptor John Rogers created a 12-inch plaster in 1859 titled, “Slave Auction,” that, oddly, depicted slaves with dignity. He was possibly the first sculptor to perceive Blacks in a rather proud way. Still, African Americans as part of a major monument did not exist in the United States prior to 1876.

The Emancipation Memorial is the first national memorial in the District depicting an African American. Archer Alexander, a runaway slave and the last man captured under the Fugitive Slave Act, was the first post-antebellum sculpture not depicting a White Civil War soldier as the main subject. The majority of monuments in the capital are of White men standing in military uniform or astride horses, and most were most were constructed after the Civil War.

A study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in August 2002 found that most African Americans polled after viewing the Emancipation Memorial had virtually the same comment. They described the bronze sculpture as “Abraham Lincoln standing tall as a god and at his feet a shirtless, shackled, humble slave kneeling down as if thanking him for their freedom.” According to the study, most African Americans felt uncomfortable while visiting the statue with their small children, especially if Whites were present. This was due to the humble position of the slave and the superior position of Lincoln, according to the poll. Additionally, some Whites also felt uncomfortable explaining the pose of President Lincoln and the slave to their young children and were embarrassed having to discuss the institution of slavery.

“When artists were commissioned to design monuments after the Civil War, they faced the great challenge of representing a society recently emancipated from slavery and also by the long campaign to abolish it,” said Savage. “This was a major impact influencing the design and style–God-like White, grateful Negro. Most of the artists working on public monuments in the first years after the war had established their careers in the 1850s, when the conflict over slavery was at its peak.”

Roslyn Dubois, Ph.D., an art history graduate of Pepperdine University and co-owner of the Urban Gallery in San Francisco, notes that the Emancipation Memorial was from the start a subject of controversy due to the inferior position of the slave. “This issue was first voiced by Frederick Douglass. He objected to the monument’s design because it showed the Negro on his knee, when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.”

However, the only ones who had been solicited for financial contributions to the monument were those who had most directly benefited from Lincoln’s act of emancipation–former African American slaves and primarily African American Union veterans. The Black freedmen raised $17,000 for the statue, and Congress appropriated $3,000 for a pedestal to support the statue, which was designed and sculptured by Thomas Ball, cast in Munich, Germany, and shipped to Washington in 1876.

The Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial was erected in 1974 by the National Council of Negro Women Inc. under the leadership of Dorothy I. Height. The $400,000 monument depicts Bethune greeting two young Black children who appear to be in a jovial mood. According to James M. Goode, Ph.D., a board member of the Historical Society of Washington, “the art sculpture portrays Bethune standing and holding a cane given to her by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She is in the process of handing a copy of her legacy to the two children.”

“This is the first memorial in the city dedicated to an African American leader,” said Goode. “She was a tireless educator, born to former slaves. She is best known for founding a school in 1904 that later became Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fla. She was president of the college from 1923 to 1942 and 1946 to 1947, one of the few women in the world who served as a college president at that time. Bethune worked for the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1922 and attempted to get him to support a proposed law against lynching. She was also a member of Roosevelt’s Black Cabinet, and served in many other leadership positions in organizations for women and African Americans.”

The Three Servicemen bronze statue on the National Mall commemorates soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War. It was created and designed to be a more traditional complement the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in that it was more inclusive of other ethnicities.

Vietnam Veteran Jasper Johnson, a radio operator in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968, remembers visiting the memorial around 2 a.m. during the summer of 1996. It was a great time to visit the statue, he said, because he was able to avoid traffic and parking problems. His first stop was at The Wall to locate the names of his fallen comrades inscribed there. He then set off to find The Three Soldiers.

“While walking through the park, I finally came upon The Three Soldiers,” he remembered. “Viewing the monument under the trees became surreal. With the moon casting light between branches on trees and creating a glow with shadows on the foreheads of the stealth-like soldiers, for a split second I thought I was back in ‘Nam and the subjects were moving silently through the jungle. I became very emotional … when I caught a glimpse of the GI wearing an afro, holding an M-16 with a towel draped around his neck.” Jasper said the towel was very significant. He, like other soldiers, carried a green towel all the time to absorb sweat and fan insects that thrived in the jungle heat.

The African American Civil War Memorial commemorates the service of 109,145 African American soldiers and sailors who fought for the Union. The sculpture, the Spirit of Freedom, a 9-foot bronze statue by Ed Hamilton of Louisville, Ky., was commissioned by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities in 1993 and completed in 1997.

Legendary Los Angeles firefighter and World War II veteran Arnett Hartsfield remembered that “although the soldiers were mostly used as labor units, they served with distinction.”

The monument is a tribute to African Americans who have fought and also died for this country so it could heal and reunite. Blacks have given their lives–from Cripus Attucks, the first to die in the American Revolution, to our sons and daughters, husbands and wives currently serving overseas in the Middle East,” said Hartsfield.

In the late 1990s the National Park Service staff began receiving inquiries concerning the true history and intent of the Statue of Liberty. The statue, according to those making the inquiries, was originally meant to be a monument to end slavery in America. Two French abolitionists, Edouard de Laboulaye and Auguste Barthodi, were behind the campaign. Reportedly, the model for the statue that has held the massive torch since 1886 was a Black woman, but the design was changed to appease White Americans who would not accept an African American-appearing Statue of Liberty.

By the time of its dedication in 1886, according to the rumors, European immigration to the United States had increased so substantially that earlier intentions associated with the statue were eclipsed, and the association with immigrants has the remained predominant understanding until now.

To answer the inquiries, an official report was funded by the National Park Service and made public September 2000 under the aegis of senior anthropologist and principal investigator Rebecca M. Joseph, Ph.D. The following is the conclusion of the report:

“Most versions of the Black Statue of Liberty rumor refer to a cast (c. 1870) of a no longer extant maquette [preliminary design] owned by the Museum of the City of New York as proof that  ‘the original model’ for the Statue of Liberty was a Black woman. The temporal proximity and aesthetic overlap between Bartholdi’s Egyptian proposal and the Statue of Liberty project, and the preliminary nature of the statue’s study models, makes it impossible to rule out an 1870-71 Liberty model that has design origins in Bartholdi’s drawings of Black Egyptian women in 1856. Based on the evidence, the connection is coincidental to the development of the Statue of Liberty under Laboulaye’ patronage. We found no corroborating evidence that Edouard Laboulaye or Auguste Bartholdi intended to depict Liberty as a Black woman. Laboulaye’s intent was to present a monument that would commemorate the fulfillment of America’s commitment to universal liberty established by the Declaration of Independence, and set an example for other nations. Liberty depicted as a freedwoman would have represented his strong anti-slavery convictions, but it would not have fulfilled this broader vision.”

After reviewing the report, Dubois called it “inconclusive …  During my visit to France I saw the original Statue of Liberty. However there was a difference, the statue in France is Black. The Statue of Liberty was originally a Black woman.”

In his book, “The Journey of the Songhai People,” Jim Haskins, Ph.D., a member of the National Education Advisory Committee of the Liberty-Ellis Island Committee, professor of English at the University of Florida, and author, records that what stimulated the original idea for the 151-foot statue in the New York harbor was a Black woman.

Perhaps an African proverb probably says it best: “Until lions have their histories, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters.

King monument a reflection of an era

An uncompromising stance from conception to construction

By Merdis Hayes
OW Contributor

What is an acceptable expression and pose for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? Much of his life outside his church sanctuary drew on speaking on behalf of the oppressed, segregated, invisible American whose singular voice and character had been muted for centuries.

So, the question of what expression should the new monument of Dr. King–officially being unveiled this weekend on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.,–have is a valid question.
Instead of a more passive, calming face satisfied with mere “dreams” and “hope,” the King statue assesses the American landscape with vigilance and newly reclaimed status as first-class citizen. The memorial represents not only the life’s work of the Nobel laureate clergyman and civil rights leader, but  also certifies an indomitable and unwavering character of an American generation who met, marched, sermonized and sanctified the precept of the United States Constitution: “We the people ….”

And “we the people” is the appropriate term, considering the King Memorial is one of the few landmarks on the mall to have been financed and constructed by private donations. Now 48 years after the famous March on Washington where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, the Department of the Interior and the National Parks Service–which once bonded with other cabinet officials, including then U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, to prevent the August 1963 rally–stand united to honor and edify the civil rights generation. These men and women are the same Great Depression and World War II stalwarts whom many cherish as our eldest relatives, friends and mentors.

In 2008 the United States Commission of Fine Arts stated in a letter to its constituents that “the (memorial’s) colossal scale and Social Realist style was… ‘confrontational.’” To this, Isaac Newton Farris Jr., Dr. King’s nephew and director of the King Center in Atlanta, Ga., responded that he hoped the commission had a sufficient understanding of Dr. King’s mission: “They’re saying it looks too confrontational. I’m saying, what do you think he was doing?”

Therein lies much of the controversy surrounding the monument. Many Whites of the civil rights generation saw protesting Blacks as angry, fist-waving trouble makers bent on malevolent social upheaval. King’s appearance in granite would supposedly garner more favor if he were smiling towards the heavens, instead of the more determined, thought-provoking pose (arms firmly crossed with a somewhat furrowed brow) that depicted the fierce urgency of the times.

Under the leadership of Henry E. Johnson Sr., the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Project Foundation has for the last nine years helped raise $114 million of the projected $120 million needed for completion. Garnering funds was not easy. Initial objections from the traditional opposition opined that statues and busts of Dr. King stood nationwide and that inclusion within the National Mall was reserved for American heads of state and/or military heroes; never a private citizen. Johnson, a former law professor at Texas Southern University, collaborated with a number of civic leaders of practically all ethnicities to counter the opposition to make what was once a “dream” a reality.

“The King Memorial reflects the uncompromising tenor and virtue of the Civil Rights Movement,” Johnson said. “The expression on Dr. King’s face and the demeanor in his stance reminds us of the urgency of national social change.”

Adding to the controversy surrounding the 30-foot granite monument is the fact it was sculpted by China’s famed Lei Yixin (a 57-year-old master from Changsha in the Hunan province) and then shipped to America.

Additionally, some protested about the selection of Yixin, who also carved a bust of China’s Mao Tse-Tung who was responsible for the death of 70 million of his own people. They called the artist a regime propagandist and decried the apparent lack of competition for the task of sculpting the statue.

Yixin’s, whose remarkable work is displayed worldwide, was a youth just on the heels of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and brings a unique understanding of social turmoil to King’s 28-foot-tall stone likeness. In rebuttal to any ethnocentric or other controversy regarding antiquated social tradition, Johnson said Lei was selected by a design team that included mostly African Americans. The committee held strongly that the likeness should reflect the tenor of the man and his times and not to yield to one’s supposed comfort level.

“We don’t want to take the stand to say African Americans can only work on this project. We appreciate the diversity we have,” Johnson said.

The history of the memorial began in January 1984, when a group of “brothers” from Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, led by George Sealey, took a proposal to build a national memorial to their fellow Alpha, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the organization’s board of directors. It was approved, followed two years later by then-President Bill Clinton signing congressional legislation authorizing the memorial. In 1998 and 1999, the National Capital Planning Commission approved a location on the National Mall.

These actions were followed by the release of a series of fundraising messages that involved personalities such as Morgan Freeman, Harry Belafonte and Al Roker. They kicked off an effort that would stretch from 2005 through today.

Calling on corporate America, the faith-based community, children and college students, as well as utilizing auctions, special dinners and through individual donations, the monument foundation raised $114 million of the $120 million needed to build the memorial.

The centerpiece of the monument is called The Stone of Hope, and depicts Dr. King emerging from a mountain of granite with his arms crossed. It is inscribed with key quotes from the civil rights leader set on a four-acre plot of land located near the Tidal Basin between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials.

Two stones that are parted and one stone wedge pushing forward toward the horizon as if departed from a single boulder form the entrance to the memorial and are called the Mountain of Despair. Once through the entry point, visitors emerge onto a plaza.

Fourteen of Dr. King’s most notable quotes are engraved on a 450-foot crescent-shaped granite Wall of Inscription. They represent the civil rights leader’s most universal and timeless messages of justice, democracy, hope and love.

Crape myrtle trees and 182 Yoshino cherry blossoms as well as additional American elm trees have been included as part of the landscaping.

The King Memorial sits within the bastion of American heroes from the Washington Monument on one end of the famous reflection pool, to the Lincoln Memorial at the other. History knows of Thomas Jefferson’s views about supposed Black inferiority, while the World War II Memorial presents a bifurcated view of the defense of liberty with two versions of the American combat soldier–one White, one Black. The starkness of King’s likeness responds with irony as visitors to the National Mall notice that he is honored on a panoply with lauded statesmen and historic events (e.g. WW II, and the Korean and Vietnam wars).

Friends and foes of King reportedly advised the famous Baptist minister never to become larger than the movement. Yet his accomplishments in his short, fateful journey would quickly become larger than life. Explains one of his closest advisers, Dr. James Lawson, now retired from Holman United Methodist Church in Jefferson Park: “Martin never believed in separating himself from the people, even in his last hours when we were concerned about his safety. His life’s work was that of the Gospel.”