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For King, A Statue and A Circus

Posted by Francie Latour  August 15, 2011 11:35 AM

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He was still warm in the grave when the people started clamoring: We want a memorial. A way to honor a lion of history, a hero of black America, a martyr shot on a balcony.

Congress didn't quite see it that way: Five different bills establishing a memorial commission for Abraham Lincoln died swift deaths on Capitol Hill. The sixth bill was the charm, in 1911, but that didn't keep politics and egos from dragging the thing on another decade. A Greek temple? the critics cried. You don't commemorate a son of Kentucky with a flashy Greek temple. What America needs along the Potomac is a nice, down-home log cabin. (We can thank our lucky stars Michele Bachmann wasn't a man living in 1911 with any sway in this debate.)

All told, making the Lincoln Memorial reality took about 57 years. Realizing the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, which will officially be unveiled on the Mall this month, took 43.  President Obama, civil rights icons and black entertainment royalty will be on hand for the Aug. 28 dedication, 48 years to the day after the March on Washington and King's "I Have A Dream Speech."

Going by the calculator on my cell, Martin's got Abe beat by 17 years. And yet the King memorial seems like a very long time coming, a miracle that was marred by one unseemly mess after another. For instance: What kind of family would charge a licensing fee to a foundation seeking to place their father in the pantheon of giants like Lincoln and Jefferson? Apparently, King's family, to the tune of $800,000, the Associated Press reported in 2009. That was shameful, but it was nothing compared to the circus that followed after the foundation selected Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin to resurrect King in stone.

Yixin's 30-foot statue shows a pensive King emerging from a granite block. And the minute images of a small-scale model started circulating, opponents pounced, branding the statue pro-Communism (because of its colossal size and Soviet-era aesthetic) and anti-union (because American union workers were shut out of the construction). Blacks have protested King's folded arms, a posture they say reduces him to an angry black man. And another thing: Something about the great Dr. King's face, critics have said, just isn't right. Something about it looks too Asian.

So: an angry, Asian-looking, union-busting, Communist statue. As critiques go, it's an unlikely collection of faults, but there you have it. (That's not to say that it's above criticism; as some have pointed out, King's statue doesn't rise to the haunting elegance of its neighbors, especially the Vietnam Veterans Memorial). Over the years, it's mostly made for great fodder on cable news. But the whole debacle did manage to raise one relevant question: To whom does King belong?

Does he belong to the pro-democracy protesters of Egypt's 2011 revolution, who circulated translated copies of a '60s-era comic book on King's heroic acts of nonviolence? Does he belong to my parents, Haitian immigrants who consciously distanced themselves from black America, yet who could not have risen to the top of their professions without the sacrifices of black Americans? Does he belong to those who say that a black sculptor, and only a black sculptor, has the right to remake King, content of character be damned? Does he even belong to his own survivors? The family has already given the statue its blessing. But what happens when King's other kids, the children and grandchildren of the civil rights movement, accuse the family of selling out Dad and call their protest group King Is Ours?

Lincoln's memorial dedication did the president proud: Americans who had literally soaked the country in blood as Civil War enemies gathered together to witness their common history. I'm not sure how many Tea Party leaders will be on hand for King's unveiling. (Last year at this time, Glenn Beck staged a national day of Kingsploitation, so to speak, hijacking the March on Washington anniversary for a "take our country back" rally.) But no matter what they believe, and whether they know it or not, King belongs to all his detractors as much as he belongs to you or me or anyone else.
This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Francie Latour writes about race, gender, ethnicity, and cultural identity. She’s written about everything from working-mom guilt to black Barbies as a contributor to The Boston Globe, where she worked for 11 years as an investigative reporter and features writer. More »

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