Had the threat of Hurricane Irene not intervened, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial would have been dedicated in Washington, D.C., yesterday.
It’s utterly unsurprising that the Memorial is controversial. Every memorial to appear recently in and around the National Mall has been (as were such now iconic monuments as the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials at the times of their construction).
The National Review called the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, when its design was announced in 1981, an “Orwellian glop,” while Vietnam veteran (and future Princeton history PhD) Tom Carhart denounced it as “a black gash of shame.“
The World War II Memorial was criticized for its blandness, its authoritarian style, and its effect on the sweep of space between the Washington and Lincoln Monuments.
The FDR Memorial was criticized for the initial decision not to depict Roosevelt in a wheelchair, for its eventual decision not to depict him with a cigarette, for its downplaying of Eleanor Roosevelt’s role in the FDR White House, and, most importantly for its overall effect. “The tragedy of the memorial,” wrote Allida Black in Public History,
is that with all this promise, with the intricate care give to FDR’s programs and their recipients, the horror of war, and the promise of the United Nations, the individuals responsible for this sit on pedestals, parodying themselves. Rather than personifying the leadership the Roosevelts exuded, the statues stand in frozen stoicism.
Indeed, the controversy surrounding the King Memorial is similar to these other recent public debates. Unions are angry that, despite promises to the contrary, non-union labor was used to construct the monument. The Washington Post cultural critic Philip Kennicott has chided the design for being “stuck between the conceptual and the literal” and has argued that
the memorial is focused on the anodyne, pre-1965 King, the man remembered as a saintly hero of civil rights, not an anti-war goad to the national conscience whose calls for social and economic justice would be considered rank socialism in today’s political climate.*
Others have questioned the decision to have a Chinese sculptor design the likeness of MLK, either because of his national identity, his “socialist realist” aesthetics, or a combination of the two.
But what is surprising is how muted this whole debate is. Only twenty years ago, in the early 1990s, the federal holiday celebrating Dr. King was still bitterly opposed in a handful of states, with opponents citing King’s associations with “a great many communists” and his opposition to the Vietnam War. Today, even the majority of the critics of the King Memorial at least pay lip service to the notion that King is a figure worthy of such celebration. And its biggest fans include some voices on the right, like columnist Charles Krauthammer.
What has changed over the last two decades? There’s some truth in the Whiggish story of racial progress that is the most popular explanation for what’s different today. Although it certainly didn’t herald a “post-racial” America, Obama’s election in 2008 remains a touchstone of this progress. But our racial progress is, of course, much more incomplete than the self-congratulatory bromides of that election night suggested.
Just as surely a “safe” Dr. King has emerged in recent years, a figure whose career seems to have begun and ended at the March on Washington. Today, everyone can celebrate the end to legal segregation. If King’s message were no more or less than the fact that Jim Crow was a massive injustice, and his greatest accomplishment was framing that message in soaring rhetoric, we could all marvel at the “I Have a Dream” Speech and pat ourselves on the back for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 (even as today’s Republican Party tries to undo some of what the latter bill accomplished).
This King is safe not merely for those supportive of our new racial consensus. Over the last two decades, the ghost of Martin Luther King, Jr., has been invoked as supporting such unlikely causes as the destruction of affirmative action programs and support for our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In fact, it’s almost become a cliché to point out that King was much more radical than he’s often remembered as being. Cornel West is entirely correct to argue in the New York Times that “MLK Would Want a Revolution, Not a Memorial,” but this message is hardly new.
But even the emergent, “safe” King is more complicated than first meets the eye. Among the fourteen quotations on the new King Memorial, is one in which he explicitly expresses his opposition to the Vietnam War: “I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against it not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and above all with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as a moral example of the world.” What’s missing, oddly enough, is any quotation which focuses on African American civil rights as such (though there is a reference to Montgomery, African Americans themselves go utterly unnamed among the quoted materials).
Philip Kennicott’s complaint that the memorial focuses on “the anodyne, pre-1965 King” in a sense misses the point. First, there was nothing anodyne about the early Civil Rights struggle. Indeed, part of the problem with the “safe” King is that it retroactively makes the black freedom struggle not much of a struggle at all. While it’s critical to remember the unfinished business of King’s life–from his pacifism to his social democratic commitments to end poverty regardless of race–it is just as critical to remember that there was nothing at the time safe about the goals for which King fought in the 1950s and early 1960s that now receive essentially universal acclaim in the public sphere. That King, pre-1965, has become anodyne is, itself, much of the problem (after all, the chief fault of Whiggish views of history are their tendency to assume that progress is inevitable).
But, second, as that quotation about Vietnam suggests, the Memorial does not, in fact, focus entirely on the pre-1965 King. Perhaps the problem isn’t this Memorial, but any memorial to a figure whose politics were as firmly in the prophetic mode as Dr. King’s. Memorials celebrate. Memorials morn. But memorials–at least official, national ones–rarely call us to further action, especially not against the powers-that-be that create them.
* Given that a healthcare policy that is the direct descendent of Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts system and Bob Dole’s proposals from the early 1990s is considered rank socialism today, Kennicott substantially understates this last point.