Like most Americans, I want the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial to be great. I want it to be an awe-inspiring monument to greatness and an eternal reminder of the promise of America — a promise that King helped make real for millions of African Americans and people of color.
But alas, after visiting the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial yesterday, I am afraid that Noah Kristula-Green is mostly right. Despite some impressive conceptual underpinnings and sculptural success, the new memorial is, ultimately, unsatisfactory — and unbecoming of the man and the Civil Rights Movement that King inspired and led.
Noah is disturbed by the massive sculpture of King, which, he says, bears an eerie resemblance to other pieces of Communist Socialist Realism. As Charles Krauthammer observes, this “flat, rigid, socialist realist King does not do justice to the supremely nuanced, creative humane soul of its subject.”
True, King looks stern and intimidating — more stern and intimidating than this warm and reflective apostle of non-violence looked like in real life. But at least there’s a formidability to the sculpture. There’s a sense, both literally and figuratively, that King is larger than life. He towers above us because he is, in a real and fundamental sense, better than us.
This is a refreshing return to artistic tradition and a change in approach taken by most national memorials of recent vintage.
For example, the Lincoln Memorial, which was dedicated in 1922, elevates Lincoln to the status of an American political saint, which he was. Thus when entering the Lincoln Memorial, you feel almost as if you are entering a church or a temple. There’s a sense of solemnity and solitude that is awe-inspiring.
The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, by contrast, was dedicated in 1997. This newer and more modern memorial thus downsizes FDR — literally and figuratively — into one of us.
We see FDR, then, at eye level, and without his trademark cigarette holder, which is now politically incorrect. The idea that this four-term president, who led America through the Great Depression and World War II, might somehow be special, distinct and extraordinary is purposely denied.
No such mistake can be made when looking at the towering sculpture of King, which is impressive and noteworthy, though lacking perhaps in overall grace and majesty.
And, conceptually at least, the sculpture is fitting. King is looking forward, across the Tidal Basin, toward the Jefferson Memorial, which is clear and visible, though distant. The implication is clear: King is looking forward to the promised land — to that one day in which:
this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’
Those, of course, are the words of the Declaration of Independence, which was written by Thomas Jefferson.
So it is entirely appropriate that, in his new memorial, King has his eyes on Jefferson: Because in truth, Jefferson — and the American political creed that Jefferson helped write — was a guiding inspiration behind King and the Civil Rights Movement.
Similarly, behind King lies the sculpture of a mountain, which serves as the memorial’s entrance. And, on the left side of the King sculpture is inscribed: “Out of the mountain of despair, a Stone of Hope.”
This line comes from King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech. But what is conspicuously missing from the inscribed quote is King’s purposeful reference to faith, by which King means both his political and Christian faiths. Here, in fact, is the full King quote:
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
These are beautiful and moving lines. And in fact, King’s entire “I Have a Dream” speech is filled with memorable and poetic verse.
But unfortunately, as Krauthammer points out, most of the quotes inscribed in the new King memorial are decidedly unmemorable and some are actually banal. You simply cannot separate King and the Civil Rights Movement from their uniquely Judeo-Christian American inspiration without losing much of their awe-inspiring majesty.
Yet, this seems to me to be exactly what the memorial builders have tried to do: They’ve tried to rewrite history to portray King not as the uniquely Christian American leader that he was, but rather as a world leader who espoused United Nations-like pap about universal man-made rights.
Here, for instance, is one of the 14 King quotes inscribed into the memorial:
Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.
King may have said this, but this is hardly the type of sentiment that makes King stand out in the American pantheon, and for which he will be remembered by his fellow Americans. It is hardly the type of idea that made the Civil Rights Movement such a stunning and remarkable success.
In fact, quite the opposite: King and the Civil Rights Movement succeeded precisely because they appealed to the American political creed as articulated by Jefferson and the founding fathers.
Now, it is true that the American political creed speaks to all peoples everywhere; it is universal in its reach and application. Nonetheless, it is uniquely American in its origins; and King petitioned Americans upon the basis of that creed. He appealed to our national civic or political religion.
Equally offensive and wrong, the new memorial gives pride of place to King’s left-wing economic views and his opposition to the Vietnam War. There, are for instance, these two quotes:
I oppose the Vietnam War because I love America. I speak out against it not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and above all with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as a moral example of the world.
I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.
It is true, of course, that, in his latter life — after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and before his assassination on April 4, 1968 — King was moving leftward politically. He was becoming more anti-war and more committed to the economic redistribution of wealth.
But again, this is hardly what made King an important and historical figure. This is hardly what history will remember about the man and the Civil Rights Movement. It is hardly what resonates now, let alone 100 years from now.
So why inscribe these banal and unmemorable quotes into the King memorial? Why introduce politically divisive comments that will divide Americans and, which, I would argue, run counter to the American political and economic traditions?
The answer is obvious: Because the King memorial is as much an act of politics as it is a work of history. It was designed, I regret to say, to promote a certain secular, left-wing worldview. This political lesson, fortunately, is not pushed on us in a tendentious and heavy-handed manner, but it is there nonetheless.
And so, what is missing is any of King’s distinguishing Christianity and Americanness. Indeed, there’s no real sense that King was not simply a great man, but a great American and a great Christian. (And yes, King was a great Christian. Whatever his private failings, his public Christianity was rich, memorable and wonderfully inclusive.)
There’s no sense that King drank deeply from the America political tradition; and that he helped to develop, foster and promote that tradition. One hopes that, in time perhaps, this shameful and lamentable oversight can be remedied through additions to the memorial grounds.
What is needed is an explicit acknowledgement and recognition of King’s Christianity and of the American political creed. These underlie and undergird our history. And you simply cannot understand King and the Civil Rights Movement unless and until you understand how and why they captured the American imagination.