This week, a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., called the Stone of Hope, was finally unveiled in Washington, D.C. It was originally scheduled to be unveiled in 2008.
More than 20 years in the making, the project is finally finished. It’s a momentous occasion for all Americans, especially for those in Black communities, who started pushing for this gesture since King was assassinated in 1968.
A proposal for the project was first conceived in 1984. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed legislation for the memorial. A location was approved in 1999. ROMA Design Group was selected for the design in 2000. Sculptor Lei Yixin was to carry out the design, breaking ground in 2006, finishing in 2008. Lei was chosen, in part, because he was experienced with large pieces. The statue of King was expected to be 28-feet tall, taller than the nearby statues of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.
So why the delay?
In 2008, Lei was asked to rework the sculpture. The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts asserted that King’s face looked too harsh. Some went as far as calling the statue “dictatorish,” looking like a socialist.
Immediately after Lei was picked to sculpt King, he was criticized for not being Black and for not being an American. An online petition was created, called “King is Ours,” which protested the fact that the project went to a Chinese national. One artist argued that because Lei was not Black, he didn’t know how Black people walk, stand, or slope their shoulders — the implication being that, because of his race and nationality, he was not qualified to sculpt King.
In September 2007, we wrote an editorial in support of Lei Yixin as the sculptor of the King memorial statue. We pointed out that a 12-person selection committee, 10 of whom were Black, chose Lei as the sculptor based on his qualifications, not his politics, whatever they may be.
Describing Lei’s likeness of King as of a ‘socialist’ is a low-blow and reveals more about our society’s current xenophobic fears of China’s booming economy overtaking the United States’ than it does about our aesthetic sensibilities.
Lei, for his part, said he hopes his monument of King will convey a message of equality. “Martin Luther King hoped that everyone would be brothers and sisters, no matter the color of their skin or their social status, that they would all enjoy the same opportunities and rights.” Throughout the whole process, Lei has not really given anyone reason to doubt his intentions.
Harry Johnson, the memorial foundation’s president and CEO, said, “The bottom line is Dr. King’s message that we should judge a person not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character.” We need to continue to internalize this. (end)