Memorial Fit for a King?

Hurricane Irene chased away me and 250,000 other expected attendees to the dedication of the National Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial the last weekend in August, but not before I had the opportunity to visit the $120 million dollar monument to the slain civil rights leader.

One cannot help but feel overwhelmed by the significance of the King Memorial. The memorial represents the culmination of a 28-year-old vision of the brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha, Inc. (Dr. King’s fraternity) to see this American trailblazer honored as a national hero. It is the first and only monument on the National Mall that is dedicated to a person of color, a civilian, and a person of peace. It is also, presumably, the last monument to be built on the nation’s sacred space as the Commemorative Works Clarification and Revision Act of 2003 prohibits the siting of new commemorative works or visitor centers on the National Mall.

It is certainly fitting that Dr. King now has a memorial on the mall, for one cannot tell the story of America without invoking his name, his work, and his influence. The American struggle to overcome the sins of Jim Crow segregation has long deserved a prominent telling in national cultural artifacts. Because Dr. King has become the national embodiment of this struggle, his inclusion in the pantheon of national heroes reinforces the near uniform modern belief that the cause of Civil Rights was just, righteous, and necessary.

The memorial certainly captures this understanding of Dr. King as the embodiment of America’s slow recognition of social equality. To enter the memorial, one walks through a pass in the “mountain of despair” forged by Dr. King himself, at least the memorial leads us to believe that this is so. The chiseled image of a serious-looking Dr. King is engraved in the stone of hope cut from this mountain. With his arms folded across his chest, a rolled-up document (presumably the constitution) in his left hand, and a solemn gaze fixed across the horizon, the 30-foot statue of Dr. King projects an austere atmosphere that symbolizes the fierce determination of Dr. King for social justice.

So, just by being a direct beneficiary of Dr. King’s social engagement, hearing the stories of the movement passed down from my elders, and witnessing the emotions of those visiting the memorial who participated in the struggle, it is easy to understand why I’d feel overwhelmed by my visit. Even now as I reflect on my experience of the memorial, the strong sense of awe and wonder I had that day seeks to have the final word. Yet, a few puzzling aspects of the memorial refuse to allow me to reside in that blissful place.

According to the MLK Memorial website, the purpose of the memorial is to “powerfully convey four fundamental and recurring themes throughout Dr. King’s message: justice, democracy, hope, and love.” While these themes are certainly a part of King’s message, by appealing only to these universal themes in the broadest way possible, the monument actually truncates King’s message to make him safe for American consumption. King the social prophet and provocateur has been replaced by King the inspirational figure. This is to be expected since it reflects the role of Dr. King’s legacy in contemporary society. Dr. King has come to represent the best of American ideals which can conveniently be summarized as justice, democracy, hope, and love. The ways in which Dr. King challenges the subversive American ideals of greed, materialism, militarism, and corporatism are missing from the memorial.

This flaw could have been overcome if the memorial did a better job of telling the story of Dr. King rather than simply proclaiming him a stone of hope, a drum major for righteousness, and displaying fourteen random quotes, some better known than others. Each quote is marked by the year Dr. King spoke or wrote it and the city in which it was spoken or written, barely enough information to track down the entire speech and view its context. Neither are the quotes displayed in any recognizable or meaningful order. For some quotes, a simple mention of the title of the speech or letter would provide much needed information for the observer as to really ground what Dr. King was alluding to in his references to these universal themes celebrated in the memorial. For example, the memorial could have simply labeled the quote inscribed in the memorial, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…” with an inscription, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

Other quotes used in the memorial simply need more context to convey the deeper meaning of King’s words. For example, the memorial quotes from King’s Nobel Peace Prize speech, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.” However, one would have a better idea of the radicalness of Dr. King’s nonviolent, antiwar, anti-imperialistic views if the preceding sentence in the same speech, “I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction” was added to the quote in the memorial.

My other concern about the memorial also reflects on the memorial’s intention of only speaking to universal themes without attention to context. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had an uncanny ability to meld religious, philosophical, political, and social ideas and concerns into a seamless tapestry of elegant argumentation. Consider the following passage from the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?

In the preceding passage, Dr. King grounds his opposition to a real social issue (the existence of segregation) in religious, philosophical, legal, and moral argumentation. Dr. King’s argument is all the more persuasive because it appeals to a variety of different traditions and ideas, thus allowing those who do not share the metaphysical assumptions of his background as a Christian minister to nonetheless take ownership of his agenda. Because the memorial uses select quotes stripped from their context, the observer misses the opportunity to see how the very unity proposed by the quotes on the memorial may actually be obtained. Further, we do not gain a sense of the commitments that shaped Dr. King’s work, namely the crucible of the segregated south and King’s religious convictions. I understand why an American monument would not want to dwell on the sins of the past. I also understand why an American monument would want to veer towards the universal and away from sectarian groundings for universal claims. However, the monument does him and the nation an injustice by not painting a fuller picture of his life, his work, and his background. Dr. King was more than a man of inspiring words. He had definitive ideas about justice, democracy, hope, and love and lived out those commitments through engaged social action. He was the embodiment of socially engaged, progressive religion at its best and the King Memorial does not sufficiently capture this element of his life.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., certainly deserves a memorial on the national mall, for one cannot tell the story of America without speaking of its national prophet. It is too bad his national memorial mutes his prophetic voice to one of mere inspiration.

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