Friday, May 16, 2008


A controversy has broken out over the design of the proposed Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC. Many Afrocentric activists are outraged that the statue was designed by a Chinese sculptor, Yei Lixin. I find this argument dubious, not only because of the racial essentialism that informs it, but because King himself (like most black activists of the left from the 1920s through the 1970s) was an internationalist, someone who saw the connections between the state of African Americans and oppressed people worldwide. Other critics of the proposed memorial have argued that the design was "outsourced," drawing a faulty parallel between capital flight and artistry. By that argument, Washington, DC's city plan was "outsourced" to the dangerous Frenchman Pierre L'Enfant and the Statue of Liberty "outsourced" to the unacceptably foreign Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi.

But of all of the criticisms swirling around the King memorial, the most disturbing to me is the argument that King, sculpted with crossed arms and a stern visage, is too "confrontational."

I have written about the danger of "plaster saint" representations of King, of how King's radical message has been domesticated into a feel-good version of civil rights politics. Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson offers a version of this argument in today's WaPo.

But it is important to remember that King's power in the 1960s came from the fact that American political leaders and the public perceived him as confrontational. J. Edgar Hoover called for FBI wiretaps of King because he was the "most dangerous Negro in America." The Kennedy administration did everything that it could to prevent the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and then to mute its confrontational message. Whites blamed King for starting riots, for stirring up the otherwise happy Negroes, and for pushing for change--too far too fast. King was an unrelenting critic of America's engagement with Vietnam. He was fearless in challenging the economic exploitation that was at the root of racial inequality in the United States.

We misremember King if we see him as the tribune of tolerance, as someone who simply called Americans to be true to their "creed" of equality and opportunity. King built bridges, yes. But he also offered a radical, prophetic critique of modern America that was profoundly confrontational. That was his power. We should not forget it.


Jeremy Young said...

I agree with all this, but the problem isn't any of what you're mentioned; it's that the crossed arms are a recognizable feature of mid-century Soviet architecture (compare Stalin statues here and here). MLK was indeed a leftist, but he wasn't a Marxist or a Stalinist (as was, say, W. E. B. Du Bois), and he shouldn't be depicted that way, in my view.

Tom S said...

But what about the famous statue of Sam Adams at Faneuil Hall in Boston or of Young Ireland activist William Smith O'Brien in Dublin? Their crossed arms are a sign of determination against tyranny, not tyranny itself.

ccmoira said...

That statue looks like it will be fabulous. Is he holding a book in one hand and a pen in the other? It's hard to tell from this picture but it seems to be incredibly appropriate. Strength does not have to be tyranny or violence.

Images of people who bore up in the face of incredible, and often violent, opposition should show confrontation. To portray them otherwise diminishes not only their achievements but seems also to be a whitewash of the oppression they suffered.

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