King as He Was

Eugene Robinson – The Washington Post

Copyright The Washington Post
We should all be able to agree that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was “confrontational.” He was also wise, measured, visionary, good-natured and generous of heart. Like most great figures in history, he was complicated. But he didn’t ask for an end to Jim Crow repression, he demanded it; he didn’t request equal justice, he required it. Confrontation, basically, was the whole point.
The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts apparently believes otherwise and has kicked off a useful debate — more of a reality check, actually — about how King is remembered. It seems to depend on who’s doing the remembering.
At issue is the statue that will stand as King’s official monument in Washington. The arts commission, which rules on the aesthetics of such memorials, has sent a letter to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation complaining that the depiction is “a stiffly frontal image, static in pose, confrontational in character.”
What they thought they were getting, commissioners wrote, was a “dynamic” and “meditative” King. Leave aside for the moment the question of how any sculptor is supposed to make someone look dynamic and meditative at the same time. The point is that the arts commission, for some reason, was not comfortable with the image of a stern-faced, 28-foot-tall black man who has his arms crossed.
That’s what Lei Yixin, one of China’s most celebrated sculptors, is concocting. There was grumbling from American artists, especially black American artists, that a Chinese sculptor was chosen to create our nation’s monument to King. Now, however, African American commentators are rushing to defend Lei’s “confrontational” vision — or, at least, to slam the arts commission for trying to make a righteously angry man look like Mister Rogers without the cardigan.
Here’s what is really going on: It’s clear that some people would prefer to remember King as some sort of paragon of forbearance who, through suffering and martyrdom, shamed the nation into doing the right thing. In truth, King was supremely impatient. He was a man of action who used pressure, not shame, to change the nation. The Montgomery bus boycott, to cite just one example, was less an act of passive resistance than a campaign of economic warfare. Yes, he knew that televised images of black people walking miles to work would help mold opinion around the world. But he also knew that depriving the bus companies of needed revenue would hit the Jim Crow system where it really hurt.
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