Thursday, September 1, 2011

Dr Martin Luther King Jr Memorial: "To Bring Glory To the Chinese People"?

It is a terrible sign of our times that what should have been a magnificent project, reflective of American craftsmanship, honoring one of the quintessentially great Americans of all time, has instead become a textbook example of all that is worst about arrogant professionals, outsourced manufacturing, arbitrary design standards, outrageous ignorance, and shoddy, cheap imports.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr.'s remembrance in a towering statue on the national mall was carried out in such a way that someone even had the hubris to rewrite the great preacher's own words, ignoring the true meaning of his great "Drum Major Instinct" sermon.  Poet Maya Angelou, who was on the committee of historians that recommended quotations, said of the faked version: "The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit. He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply."  

Rationale given for chopping ~30 words off of the real quote? "Space constraints."  Click here to see just how constrained space was on that side of the monument.

More likely, the socio-politico-design group had a brainstorm that it would be clever to enhance the "Drum Major" theme to coordinate with the Obama administration's "MLK Drum Major for Service" brand element for the "Martin Luther King Jr Day of Service January 16, 2010" "Make it a day on, not a day off!" [1/16/12 note: the linked page has been edited since originally linked. It now contains the entire quotation.]

The monument is 30 feet tall, 46 tons of stone, that was built in communist China and cost $120 million dollars (of which $10 million was authorized by Congress), including $25 million from the Chinese government. Why would China contribute $25 million to an American memorial to a Christian minister?   More important, what patriotic American would take totalitarian money for this project? Yes, there is a difference between the Dr Martin Luther King memorial project and ordinary business deals. At least there is to me. What else do our government and intelligensia think is ok to barter away to China?

Commenter RossEmery on the Washington Post pointed out (in a fine and careful critique) that the uncharacteristic pose of Dr King and retro-red-Russian-revolution artistic style of the statue was objectionable to Americans on the US Commission of Fine Arts as far back as 2008, and probably before that. 

The statue of this devout Christian man was deliberately made to look "reminiscent of political art in totalitarian states" (which China still is), and Thomas Luebke protested that ""the colossal scale and Social Realist style of the proposed statue recalls a genre of political sculpture that has recently been pulled down in other countries."

Yes, sculptor Lei Yixin may be a master craftsman, acclaimed in China for his carving of Chairman Mao Tse Tung, and yes, his rendering of Dr King is technically precise. I do not fault the artist in any way: he has accomplished the task he was given. But I've seen nothing, no explanation, no manner of thought, that would suggest him to be in any way artistically or philosophically qualified to carve a National Monument for the United States of America.  

In another 2008, article, the Post reported that the Commission had agreed to  approve the statue following changes that "smoothed away wrinkles in King's brow and reshaped the mouth to impart a hint of a smile." I imagine the rendering shown at this link (click here) depicts what they were expecting.

But this is what they got:

Click to enlarge it and try to find a smile, and try to ignore the creases in the man's brow - creases that never appear when a person is smiling, only when they frown. Do you see a smile in any of these angles of this image of Dr King? 

It gets worse. Apparently, China was allowed to import Chinese laborers to assemble the memorial in Washington DC- workers who did not know how much or even whether they would be paid for their work. They were housed for months, both teams, in two hotel rooms, hidden away, required to cook their own meals in their room, not allowed out. They were given "free" lunch and allowed to stop working long enough to eat quickly.

They were told only that they would not be paid until they returned to China.  They said they were working  "for "national honor...  To bring glory to the Chinese people."

I think Dr King would have called that something dangerously close to slave labor.

I know that it is wrong to treat people this way. It is wrong. It doesn't matter what other countries' "culture" accepts - this is America. This is why illegal immigration is wrong, and why Barbara Jordan opposed so-called "guest worker" programs. She pointed out that other countries have tried this and we do not want to be like that - America does not want to have a permanent underclass like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other countries who deliberately bring in destitute foreigners to work without any rights and little pay.

I think all patriotic Americans - Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal or progressive, Christian or Athiest - can agree that there is no room in the United States for human trafficking - or for anything that leads down that ugly and terrible road - whether in cherry orchards  on the West coast, or surrounded by ornamental cherry trees on the National Mall. 

The Martin Luther King Jr National Memorial foundation leadership need to step up and distance themselves from the appalling exploitation that's been committed on this project. I imagine most either didn't know what was going on or, knew but accepted smooth explanations that made it easier for them to pretend reality wasn't happening. They accomplished their objective, but at the expense of Dr King's example, and in opposition to his teaching.

In his Christmas Sermon, 1967, Dr King spoke about just such globalization as we have seen in the work on this statue. And if one stopped reading halfway through, or read only an edited version that snipped the real meaning, it would be easy to believe that he might actually approve what's been done. But don't stop halfway - because he speaks to ends, and means:

"But we will never have peace in the world until men everywhere recognize that ends are not cut off from means, because the means represent the ideal in the making, and the end in process, and ultimately you can’t reach good ends through evil means, because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree."

It is only a statue. The man's legacy is not in cold rock or hard imperial edges. His legacy is in an America that's better than it was, in which for the vast majority of citizens, much of his dream has come true, and we live together as brothers and sisters, regarding only the content of a person's character and paying no notice to the color of anyone's skin.

The full quotation? Here are the paragraphs Dr King delivered, speaking about what he might like said of him after he was gone:

" I'd like somebody to mention that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I'd like for somebody to say that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day, that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say, on that day, that I did try, in my life, to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

" Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that's all I want to say.

" We all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade. ... And the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct. It is a good instinct if you don't distort it and pervert it. Don't give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be the first in love. I want you to be the first in moral excellence. I want you to be the first in generosity."

Images from National Park Service (


  1. Thank you for this interesting and very poignant information. I am a sculptor and work in large scale, bronze, marble and granite... I was a bit late to this project, my name was put forth after the Chinese sculptor was almost complete... but I know with my friends and talent in the industry we could and would have brought not only honor to Dr. King jr. and his message, but also brought pride of ownership as well as vast employment to our own here in the U.S. and in particular Georgia...Dr. King's home state...
    stan mullins

  2. Hi Mr Mullins, it is good to hear your perspective on this.

    I hope that when the country regains its sanity a new project will someday be undertaken - one in which righteous means produce worthy art. This one remains a failure, no matter who attends however many delayed dedications.



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