The New Monument on the Mall

Against the Current, No. 157, March / April 2012

Kelly Quinn

THE MARTIN LUTHER King, Jr. Memorial is the first devoted to an African American individual on the Washington Mall, a solemn civic space heretofore reserved for presidents and warriors. This memorial is a park that by its very presence, reconfigures the spatial stories of leadership in the United States. The location is auspicious and charged as it is tucked between the Lincoln and the Jefferson Memorials, encircles the Northwest edge of the Tidal Basin, and stands in close proximity to the Washington Monument adjacent to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.

The idea for the King Memorial stemmed from a conversation among several senior members of Alpha Phi Alpha, King’s fraternity, who wished to encourage more African Americans to visit the National Mall. After years of lobbying Congress, obtaining a site and navigating the federal bureaucracy, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Foundation organized an international design competition.

ROMA Design Group’s winning plan for the memorial was selected from 1,000 entries from 52 countries. Their design transformed a four-acre parcel into an open, crescent-shaped outdoor room with several notable sculptural elements and landscape features. A small one-story glass and steel pavilion houses the National Park Service rangers’ station and a bookstore.

The memorial opened to the general public in late August 2011. Although the opening was first scheduled to coincide with the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington, Hurricane Irene postponed official events. Yet, informally, thousands of excited, curious visitors toured the grounds just before and immediately after the storm. Finally, on October 16, King family members, president Obama, Civil Rights leaders, celebrities, elected officials, poets and musicians helped to celebrate the dedication with thousands of others in attendance.

Visitors enter the site through one of three points of ingress: at either end of the Inscription Wall or through a portal at the corner of Independence Avenue and West Basin Drive. This entrance is dominated by “The Mountain of Despair,” two chunks of a large boulder that frame the passage.

A wedge has been cut from the massive rock and thrust into an open plaza. Once there, Master sculptor Lei Yixin’s figure of a 29-foot, six-inch King emerges from “The Stone of Hope.”

To underscore the metaphor, King’s sculpture is labeled on one side announcing, “Out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” On the other, planners initially posted a paraphrased line from “The Drum Major Instinct,” a sermon King delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, adapted from a homily of the same name first preached by J. Wallace Hamilton, a white liberal Methodist minister.

After King family members, celebrity wordsmiths, Civil Rights leaders, historians and humorists challenged this truncated iteration of the quote, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar ordered the Foundation to fix or remove the line: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” by mid-February 2012. Foundation leaders replied that reworking the granite may threaten the structural integrity of the monument. This controversy remains unresolved.

Extensive Fundraising

The memorial cost an estimated $120 million, $114 million of which has been raised. The leadership team spent several years appealing to a range of organizations and individuals. In so doing, they were also building a national audience of people invested in the memorial’s success. They secured major gifts from prominent foundations, corporations and celebrities, and also assembled large sums from small donations.

This strategy included pitches to at least three special constituencies: faith-based congregations, fraternal orders, and college and universities. Among the faith-based initiatives, efforts yielded donations ranging from nominal (one church offered $1) to substantial (another raised $200,000).

The Dream Keepers College Program encouraged students, alumni, faculty, staff, families and communities to organize fundraising efforts on their campuses around the United States. And, the organizers developed “Greeks Asking Greeks,” in which Greek-letter organizations entered a friendly competition to raise funds. Nine Black sororities and fraternities, joined by one historically white fraternity, garnered over $6,891,299.86. King’s fraternity led the way.

Through their small and large gifts, donors sought to associate themselves formally with King’s legacy and the memorial’s presence on the Mall in the national capital.

This fundraising campaign for the MLK Memorial recalls earlier efforts of African-American men, women, and children to erect memorial sculptures in public parks in Washington, D.C. Indeed, the MLK Memorial relates to a longer tradition of African Americans using formal public monuments to observe and make visible African-American contributions to U.S. history, life and thought.

Two sculptural groups stand in Capitol Hill’s Lincoln Park as a result of such African-American organizing. First, in the years following the Civil War, Charlotte Scott of Virginia solicited funds from freed people for a statue of president Abraham Lincoln to mark Emancipation. Their offerings resulted in Thomas Ball’s charged “Emancipation Group,” in which president Lincoln stands above a newly emancipated, crouching African-American man.

Across the lawn and amphitheater, a 17-foot bronze sculpture of civil rights activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune, flanked by a young boy and girl, now engages the earlier figures. The National Council of Negro women spent over a decade, developing this program in the 1960s and early 1970s.

The Man and the Movement

Like their predecessors, the King Memorial Foundation’s designers and planners sought to commemorate a complex historical figure many claim to know intimately and with certainty. Their decision to focus attention on a figurative representation of King has been questioned by some architectural critics. Yet King’s physical presence at the memorial is poignant and provocative.

The site planners placed this monumental King on a direct axis with neighboring ones devoted to presidents, as if these stone men now engage in an eternal conversation about democracy, debating what it means to be an American. Rather than offering an abstracted, laconic obelisk like the Washington image, the choice to commemorate an embodied King was necessary.

The Civil Rights struggle in the United States was one in which African-American men, women and children put their bodies on the line for the cause. A nearly 30-foot King requires that visitors recognize his Black body, one that was denigrated, vilified, demonized, threatened, surveilled and assassinated during the struggles for freedom, liberty and equality.

The towering man is a testament to resilience and perseverance. This memorial makes legible African-American contributions to American history amid the sacred space of the Washington Mall.

Other cultural critics wonder why the King memorial grounds do not include pieces that explicitly represent the others who struggled for Civil Rights. Certainly King’s singular, monumental presence belies the mighty contributions made by the communities who came before and after him. The communities King worked directly with are also absent in the memorial grounds.

This memorial, like most others on the Mall, celebrates individual accomplishments rather than collective action. This, after all, is the prevailing logic of most formal memorial architecture in Washington, D.C.

To telegraph King’s legacy, the architects included a selection of his words. Here, the words work with the landscape to advance the notion that King remains a symbol for the ages, one who worked tirelessly on behalf of humanity. Organizers have been explicit about their decision to represent King as an advocate for peace.

Along the “Inscription Wall,” stone-carver Nicholas Benson cut 14 quotes into the 450-foot granite wall. The statements include brief excerpts from sermons, his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In one panel on the South Wall, King explains one reason for opposing the war in Vietnam — a daring move considering the larger context of the Mall, a space that valorizes military service in war.

The architects and planners negotiated a delicate dance as they focused the decorative program to reflect four major themes that they recognized in King’s life work: justice, democracy, hope and love.

Flowers and Pilgrimage

Ed Jackson, Jr., the Executive Architect, and the project team developed a plantings scheme to advance the notions of hope and renewal. Initially, they aimed to introduce a green infrastructure plan that would tie the site to King’s native state of Georgia by including cottonwood trees and crape myrtles. They changed their designs when they learned a story about how King’s son’s classmates offered dozens of fresh cut flowers to help Coretta Scott King and the family through their initial period of mourning in April 1968.

The project team sought to capture this spirit of healing and instead added 182 cherry blossoms to the site. As such, the King Memorial landscape will blossom with pink and white flowering trees annually near the anniversary of King’s assassination on April 4th, serving as a reminder of his death and life. This symbolic gesture will integrate the memorial into the larger cultural landscape and civic rituals of the city.

Washingtonians have cherished the celebrated blossoming trees since the gift first arrived in the city over 100 years ago as a goodwill gesture from the Mayor of Tokyo. Local residents and out-of-town tourists alike make annual visits to the Tidal Basin to survey the scene. In the coming years, the King Memorial may become part of this annual rite of spring.

Since the memorial park opened in August 2011, thousands of people have made pilgrimages to the site. Some stroll through during walkabouts. Tourists decamp coaches at the bookstore, and head for one of the destinations on their circuit through the city. Others use the site as a thoroughfare for their running routes, racing through as they train for marathons.

On the first federal holiday honoring Dr. King since the memorial was opened, thousands braved frigid temperatures to walk the plaza and pay their respects. Parents read passages aloud to their children; couples discussed episodes of King’s life as National Park Service rangers led tours. Clubs and organizations with African-American members met at the site for formal portraits including local chapters of the Boys and Girls Club and Black Girls RUN! who also organized a fun run.

Many other visitors posed for pictures, interacting with the space in perhaps unexpected ways. They trained their attention to particular features often mediating the experience through handheld technologies.

To date, nearly 6,000 people have checked-in on the social networking website FourSquare, while others have posted thousands of pictures of the memorial, including snapshots of engraved quotes and the iconic King sculpture, on their Facebook walls and in Flickr accounts. Personal experiences may evanesce as people move through time and space away from the site, but the memory lingers, never fully dissipating when pictures remain on display as a Profile Picture or in an album in Facebook.

The practice of self-portraiture at sites of historical memory suggests both the limits and possibilities of contemporary public culture. The act represents a desire to remember the monument and the moment, enabling individuals to insert themselves into the story.

Public monuments that commemorate important individuals and events extend and enrich spatial stories of our shared past. The King Memorial insists that we acknowledge our African-American history as part of the American story.

While the public has responded favorably to the architectural, sculptural, and landscape program, it raises questions about the political work of a memorial. The King Memorial helps to foster a sense of belonging by including an African-American minister, scholar and activist amid a landscape traditionally devoted to presidents. Visitors recognize this significance and long to associate themselves with it by going to the site, by moving through the grounds, by marking time with photographs and memorabilia.

Advertising Brotherhood

One major advertising campaign that promoted the memorial opening suggested another strategy for commemorating King’s legacy. Chevrolet and Spike DDB, Spike Lee’s advertising firm, invited viewers, “To take your seat at the table on August 28th.” (Spike DDB, “Table of Brotherhood,” 2011)

In the one-minute television spot, men, women and children of various ages, races, ethnicities, religions and classes meet across a very long, narrow table set with an elegant white cloth, china plates, silver cutlery, crystal goblets, bowls of fruits and platters of bread. A recording of Dr. King’s hopeful, familiar and beloved “I Have a Dream” speech plays in the background.

Thirty seconds into the advertisement, King describes a day when we can sit together at “a table of brotherhood.”

On screen, the characters are drawn to a Table of Brotherhood that snakes through star spangled regional landscapes: from the water’s edge through an abandoned block in New Orleans, across lush green lawns, down a musalla in a mosque, through fields of industrial corn and other commodity crops, between rows of high school lockers, next to a diner, through a stand of trees, around curvilinear suburban streets, near high rise urban office buildings, to the podium of the Lincoln Memorial, and ultimately before the grand statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. at the new memorial in Washington, D.C.

This commercial aired in August and endures online, garnering praise and award nominations for its potent mix of corporate multiculturalism, advertising, and storytelling.

Chevy’s ad highlighted the company’s leadership in two major campaigns in which they sought to promote the opening of the King Memorial on the National Mall. First, the Table of Brotherhood Project was a series of public discussions about education, economy, healthcare, cultural diversity and tolerance. The meetings featured public panels of celebrities and audiences of everyday people deliberating about the meanings of King Legacy; they convened in Atlanta, Memphis, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

The second was Chevy’s financial sponsorship of the new memorial. While the advertisement does not mention it explicitly, the GM Foundation and Chevrolet donated $10 million to the program.

The symbolic table envisioned by King and depicted by Spike DDB has yet to be realized fully. Indeed its possibility seems increasingly dim given the vitriolic discourse and contemporary debates about race, equality and justice in the United States.

Yet the new memorial offers one site available to visitors for contemplation and ritual. The leaders and organizers of the memorial intend an architectural and landscape program that will inspire renewed reflection on and appreciation for King’s legacy, while emphasizing his global appeal and his message of peace.

Can the King Memorial inspire collective, political action — perhaps moving the Table of Brotherhood from a corporate commercial to a community of practice?  Perhaps, setting the Table of Brotherhood for serious conversation, deliberation, critique and action? Or perhaps, readying for more than a snapshot?

See and for more information about the MLK Memorial and the National Park Service site.

March/April 2012, ATC 157