It’s fun to imagine what our departed greats would think of the posthumous images we erect in their memory. Some of those enshrined on the National Mall in DC would be startled or surprised to find how we see them. Lincoln, famous in his own time for telling naughty stories too risqué to be repeated in polite society, would be amused to find himself so completely ennobled and now comfortably ensconced in the best society. Jefferson, a great lover of the Enlightenment, would probably like his memorial’s Neo-classical trappings, but would he like being stuck inside forever that way? He seems too cut off from Nature, there in his rotunda, which could scarcely please a man who so loved to garden.
And what about the new kid on the block, Martin Luther King, Jr.? He’s probably more than a little bit miffed, and I don’t blame him. His new statue is ugly, and he deserves better than to be remembered as a stern colossus cordoned off alone, with nothing but two marble icebergs for company. I can hardly imagine a memorial duller or more inapt. Here was a great artistic opportunity, and one bungled badly.
King’s was a congregate life. His struggle, his aims, his achievements can only be appreciated by comprehending them in relation to a larger society. He was nothing if not part of a collective, a figure who, because of his gifts and his particular conceptualization of the problem of black Americans, became the symbol and voice of a larger brotherhood, the leader of a larger tribe of suffering humankind.
He became great by giving voice to, and raising up, a great part of our society, and his labors, no matter how refracted by his own personality, were memorable and laudable because of his relation to other, more ordinary, Americans. The photographs of King that stick in my mind are all teeming with crowds, with phalanxes and teams: King addressing the millions during the March on Washington; King marching with Ralph Abernathy, Stokely Carmichael, and others who were the civil rights movement’s first generation of strategists and leaders; King walking arm in arm with his wife Coretta or a friend. Even the famous image of King taken during his imprisonment in the Birmingham jail takes its significance from the fact that he had been temporarily ripped from his proper place as a leader of a movement and a people. King’s invariable impulse was to place himself before, to be seen by, and to connect with masses of American people.
Not only was King essentially a creature of his race, a champion who gave voice to, and would not let us forget, the deplorable position of blacks within American society, but his too-brief life was almost inconceivably kinetic and dramatic, particularly during what would prove to be in his last years, between about 1963 and 1968, when he had really just reached maturity. During these years, King worked, and spoke, and moved, incessantly. In retrospect, his life appears to have been one long succession of sit-ins, bus rides, marches, interviews, mass meetings, huddles, parades, and rallies. He was the leader of a movement, and that movement moved. King moved hearts, but, more crucially, he moved millions of ordinary American citizens to act, and, in so doing, he achieved what few American leaders have ever accomplished as brilliantly. Whatever their accomplishments, neither Lincoln, nor Jefferson, nor Washington ever led a popular movement of the sort that Martin Luther King helped will into being. While these other leaders attained greatness while occupying positions at the top of America’s social and political hierarchies, King was a great dissident, leading an outsider movement that was amorphous and purely voluntary. In that sense, his greatness came solely from his relationship to other people.
The crowded, kinetic character of King’s life is precisely what his new memorial fails to capture or even acknowledge. King’s very death was public and dramatic, occurring at the center of a homely crowd scene; it, too, is occluded. King as depicted on the Mall appears isolated, mute, static, even uncaring, yet this King couldn’t be farther from the passionate, embracing, vibrant, and, above all, articulate character whose words and deeds are impressed on our memories.
It’s unfortunate that King’s life and place in history have been immortalized in a way that separates King out and partakes of the “great man” theory of history. The pressure to figure King in a style resembling that of the great whites he would join on the Mall must have been considerable. Yet a representation truer to the significant chapters in King’s struggles for civil rights and referring in some way to the larger social and political context in which he labored would have been preferable. King did not emerge, inexplicably, out of nowhere, like some force of nature: his identity as an activist and intellectual was inextricable from the major traditions and figures that influenced and inspired him. King’s hard-won pre-eminence as a civil rights leader derived from his ability to frame arguments about racial justice in terms of democratic principles and Christian precepts that most Americans, regardless of race, understood and revered. He was also deeply influenced by the example and ideas of the great Indian pacifist, Mahatma Gandhi, whom King traveled to meet early in life, and from whom he adopted the key principle of non-violent resistance.
King’s contributions to American life do not hinge solely or even principally on his steadfast determination, as his sculptor has argued; many blacks of that time were similarly determined. King’s great contribution lay in bringing together a rich complex of ideas through which his people’s disruptive yet urgent crusade for equality could be legitimated and realized. “Why We Can’t Wait” was one of his famous titles.
Choosing to depict King’s situation and achievements in a more explicit way would have been risky as well as more artistically demanding. King’s importance cannot be understood without acknowledging the perdurance in America of race hatred, any more than his success can be explained without reference to religious faith, including that of non-Christian spirituality. The modern era furnishes many instances of memorials—from David’s Death of Marat to the Vietnam Memorial—that are at once simple, truthful, and moving. Had the creators of the King Memorial harkened to such examples, they might have arrived as a more fitting and less sanitized tribute to one of our greatest modern men.