WASHINGTON — The selection of a Chinese sculptor to carve a three-story monument to Martin Luther King Jr. on the National Mall is raising questions about what part of his legacy should be celebrated.
King promoted peace and understanding among all people. His primary fight, however, was to win particular opportunities for blacks in the United States by juxtaposing the plight of an oppressed people against a message of freedom and democracy.
A loose-knit but growing group of critics says a black artist — or at least an American — should have been chosen to create the King memorial between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials in the nation’s capital. They have been joined by human rights advocates who say King would have abhorred the Chinese government’s record on religious and civil liberty.
“They keep saying King was for everyone. I keep telling people, ‘No, King wasn’t for everyone. King was for fairness and justice,”’ said Gilbert Young, a black painter from Atlanta who has started a Web site and a petition drive to try to change the project.
The memorial foundation directing the project seems surprised at the criticism. Ten of the 12 people on the committee that chose the sculptor, Lei Yixin, are black. Lei is working closely on the design with two black sculptors in the U.S., organizers said, and the overall project is being directed by a black-owned architecture firm.
The foundation also point to King’s preaching — in a quote that will be incorporated into the monument — that to achieve peace, humans must “transcend race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”
“The bottom line is Dr. King’s message that we should judge a person not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character,” said Harry Johnson, the foundation’s president and chief executive. “In this situation, we’re talking about the artistic character.”
The King monument is scheduled to be completed in 2009.