Monumental Controversy

Too angry? Too severe?

Too angry? Too severe? Source: Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, Inc. hide caption

itoggle caption Source: Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, Inc.

On Saturday, I spent a warm afternoon on the National Mall, here in Washington, wandering between the Washington Monument and the Capitol, past the National Gallery and the Hirshhorn Museum.

It is a big, glorious expanse, which has changed in the last few decades. The Smithsonian built the National Museum of the American Indian for instance, right next to the United States Botanic Garden. And there are plans for new museums and memorials, to preserve African-American history, to remember Martin Luther King Jr.

Controversy has erupted around the design and construction of the King monument. Some say that the sculpture of the civil rights leader, designed by Chinese artist Lei Yixin, doesn't portray King as he was. He looks too severe, they say. Angry, even.

Ibram Rogers, writing at, says that the criticism is unwarranted. "Lei's design is not only an accurate depiction of the image we should see of King in our historical memory, it is a prescient depiction of how King would likely confront the country now."

What do you think of the design?



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He looks strong and determined. He looks thoughtful.
Get a grip! What a wonderful symbol of strength and fortitude.

Sent by Judi | 2:51 PM | 5-19-2008

I think the confrontational depiction is completely appropriate. If he looked happy, it would imply that the fight it over. The fight is not over.

Sent by Susie | 2:53 PM | 5-19-2008

MLK looks like a man with a mission and he was effective in getting his mission moving.
Looks fine to me.

Sent by Susan Bernatas | 2:54 PM | 5-19-2008

MLK preached love. Does this sculpture reflect that? Is this how he looked when he pointed us to the promise land?

Sent by Benjamin | 2:54 PM | 5-19-2008

As a white, middle class woman- I cheer someone getting it right! Finally someone remembers this great man and all his passion for the injustice of descrimination and also, poverty. This is his legacy, no?
I see the statue as being stoic, not angry. I think the interpretation can easily be in the eyes of the viewer.

Sent by Michelle Bellaver | 2:55 PM | 5-19-2008

Who ever got the idea to contract a Chinese artist? It looks like one of the stark hard images from the east block like Marx, Mao or Lenin.

Sent by Claus Koenig | 2:56 PM | 5-19-2008

Are we trying to re-write history to how we wanted it to be or should we keep it as we know it. I think the statue looks great, and not knowing the man other than what I learned in history, it seems to be a good portrait.

Sent by Joe | 2:57 PM | 5-19-2008

I agree that this particular portrayal of Dr. King is appropriate. Many would like to paint him with a broad brush that equates nonviolence with softness. Dr. King was anything but soft. He was confrontational and he was, in a polite manner, absolutely steadfast in his desire to hold this country to the ideals it was founded on and the potential it possesses.

Sent by Tonee | 2:58 PM | 5-19-2008

Hi Neal!

From a body language perpective, "crossed arms" usually means "closed off, not listening, not willing to engage" - all things that I would not associate with King and his legacy. I think it's possible to make the statue represent his strength or even his confrontation, without losing his hope and compassion.



Sent by Kerry Chapman | 2:58 PM | 5-19-2008

Stern is perhaps too strong of a word. Think about all of the other rebels who have had their image become an icon. Che Gueverra, Malcom X, Lenin, their visages, their faces have become legend. And the look on their face is often not one of blissful contentment. Why should even Dr. Martin Luther King not appear to be slightly stern or disapproving. He was assassinated because he spoke out about wanting equal rights for African Americans. Even in death perhaps his face is a sign that there is still more to be done. If his face displayed benign satisfaction, would that really represent his life's work?

Sent by Keith Wikle | 2:59 PM | 5-19-2008

It's great. Strong, firm, principled.

Sent by Read Vanderbilt | 3:00 PM | 5-19-2008

I see King surrounded by children of many races as King's vision was to the future...a future of social justice for the children and those children to come.

Sent by Charles Marsteller | 3:00 PM | 5-19-2008

I would rather see a King statue on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where he gave the speech that became a defining moment in our history. When I visited the Lincoln Memorial in late 1977 the step from which he spoke was not even marked. One had to use photos from the event to be sure of the exact spot.

I think a King statue on the Lincoln Memorial would represent one of those moments in American history when we took another step toward that more perfect union we (hopefully) still seek.

Sent by Ron Sutcliffe | 3:00 PM | 5-19-2008

I think the proposed statue looks like some relic of communist propaganda. The squareness of the figure and its rock backing; the folded arms and stern look all serve to remind me of an old Soviet collective farm poster.

Sent by Paul | 3:01 PM | 5-19-2008

I wonder if his image was in front of an image of one of the many angry, violent, hatred spitting people he had to confront in his lifetime, would that help people to see this expression as nothing less than restrained.

Sent by Rick Tuttle | 3:02 PM | 5-19-2008

Why is a Chinese sculptor being used in the first place? Also it should be noted that all the granite to be used in this memorial will be coming from China. It is my understanding that the granite work was put out to bid and that the Chinese were awarded the contract based on cost. Is is fair or prudent to memorialize a champion of human rights by shipping the job out to a totalitarian, anti-human rights country?

Sent by Terry | 3:03 PM | 5-19-2008

Martin Luther King Jr. was inspirational for all Americans.
His arms should be open and up with his hand open reaching out to all of us.
This is the Martin Luther King I remember.

Sent by Larry A. La Mar | 3:03 PM | 5-19-2008

What I see is a representation of MLK focused on the horizon. I think he saw that there were footsteps that marked success, but there was always a further march ahead.

Sent by Greg Hruby | 3:04 PM | 5-19-2008

As a worker in the movement, I met him twice. He had a presence, a greater than the moment presence. That statue does not capture his presence. And it should be designed in USA by an American. Maybe someone who understood his power would do better

Sent by Judy Murphy | 3:04 PM | 5-19-2008

This will stand on the Washington Mall as an ever-present reminder to our leaders that upholding Civil and Human Rights should remain supreme in their concerns while assuring the general populace that if we follow in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's path of peaceful, but forceful, perseverance we can achieve every bit as much as Dr. King did.

Sent by Evan | 3:06 PM | 5-19-2008

I don't get angry from this sculpture. If you think it's angry, you're not looking hard enough.

Besides, this sculpture isn't just about representing King, it's about representing a dissenting voice.

Anyone can make a sculpture of a grinning person, happily going about their lives. King was not that person, and the sculpture reflects the seriousness behind what he fought for - a fight that still hasn't been won.

And that's why having a grinning Martin Luther King Jr. statue makes absolutely no sense.

The dialogue that's been started by this statue is great. When was the last time you heard someone debating the pose of Lincoln in the Lincoln memorial? Yeah, it happens - but not as viscerally as this discussion.

Keep it the way it is. There's too much prude, safe, mindless public art in this country. Get people to think a bit, please.

Sent by Tom | 3:07 PM | 5-19-2008

I think one point is being left out; this is a commissioned piece of artwork. It is being scrutinized on a philisofical level. This is not the only image of him to be produced, there are others and will be many more. Everyone seems ot have an opinion on the fine deatails of this sculpture, even me, but our opinios are just that. Words like "right" and "wrong" really do not have a of relevance in the dicsussion of these fine details. Everyone has the right to enjoy this work or not, to approve or not. But it's merit should ne be questioned on this basis. Also, to bring up the artists nationality as a negative, as I have heard a bit of, considering who the sculpture is of.. well, thats just rediculous.

Sent by chad shepard | 3:13 PM | 5-19-2008

I have been listening to a few callers who stated they wanted the statue to show MLK as "sweet" & "loving" which to me sounds typically "white". Let's not have our black leaders who challenged the racism inherent in US society look confrontational. Well, as a white woman who has painfully spent a lifetime owning up to my own white privilege, I think it is very important that MLK's statue reflect the courage, the strength, the anger, necessary to confront the ugliness of any kind of oppression and King did that specifically with racial injustice, but his statue can be a reminder of what it takes to confront injustice. Those who have what they have at the cost to others who do not have, and there are plenty of them still around do not give up what they have by someone sweetly and lovingly asking them.

Sent by michele wolfson | 3:14 PM | 5-19-2008

I am old enough to remember King from his very first days - this statue does not represent the King I remember nor does it adequately express the feelings he invoked - King was many things but I never saw him act or look disgusted. Lets have a statue that looks at worst reflective and hopeful.

Sent by Beth Short | 3:16 PM | 5-19-2008

We all have an opinion. My opnion is that this does not look like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. The artist didn't capture the eyes of the Rev. Dr. King. These eyes squinch as though the sun is shining. Rev. Dr. King's eyes were always alert...yet soft and focused.
I think his arms should not have been crossed.
Thank you for the opportunity to opinion.

Sent by Terry | 3:18 PM | 5-19-2008

People are trying to reinterpret history and idealize King. King was a very confrontational, controversial force in American politics and was looked upon as a nuisance among mainstream America for much of his struggle. It was just that - a struggle. He should look controversial, mean, angry - that's what he represented. He shouldn't be reinvented to see what most Americans view him as now - a hero who saved America from itself and fought injustice. The American now is NOT the America then and King was not viewed as a hero or a savior to most parts of America. To try to put that on him now is to redefine history and isn't fair to King or his legacy.

Sent by Denise | 3:19 PM | 5-19-2008

Why do some have a problem with acknowledging the other side of love; tough love? That is what I see and hear when I observe the life of King. Lets be honest and not politically correct. History should always tell the whole story.

Sent by James Wright | 3:21 PM | 5-19-2008

He looks ennobled and brave, meditative and complex. His brow appears knitted with anger and hope, pity and frustration. Yes, it is a striking depiction of Dr. King, but all of these expressions are appropriate and dignified. His glance is striking, but it should be. If you want peace and serenity erect a statue of the Buddha.

Sent by Tony | 3:23 PM | 5-19-2008

I Listened to the interview of Ibram Rodgers just like I thought he's not old enough to remember Mr. King. He sounded like a quack. When I think of Mr. King I think of a man that changed a nation through peace and love, which his statue should embody, which was the opinions of the callers who were olde enough to remember Mr. King. The artists, as well as, young people including journalists should listen to the people who lived history not read about it. Thank you

Sent by WRPAGE | 3:23 PM | 5-19-2008

Is the National Mall going to be known now as the International Mall. Its a disgrace that a Chinese sculptor is creating a Statue for an American Hero. If I was blessed enough to me a multi-millionair I would pay for the statue to be made in America by a American, preferably by an American artist that marched with Dr. King. I only hope that a American millionair sees this and steps-up. Somethings should remain American Made...

Sent by L. J. Hall | 3:56 PM | 5-19-2008

As I listened to the segment I realized a true tribute to Mr. King would be of him leading a large group of people. This would show how it was not about Mr. King but the entire movement and how the movement he created is his true everliving contribution to America.

Sent by TJ | 4:09 PM | 5-19-2008

I think the statue is moving and appropriate. At his best, King was thoughtful, reflective and challenging. I think that the artist conveyed all of these through the statue's posture and facial expression. I don't think the statue is too harsh or confrontational. I think it shows a man who carried a huge weight on his shoulders. It should be remembered that though King preached peace and love, the world around him did not always make it so. He was often at the center of great violence and controversy. It did not change the message, but it must have certainly changed the man.

Sent by WineGirl | 4:12 PM | 5-19-2008

As a white man from Oklahoma,33, I think he looks Determined, as if he is skeptically overseeing the building of something he started. I also like the "Social Realist" style, perfect for this piece.

Sent by Jay | 4:50 PM | 5-19-2008

This statue does not look like someone who practiced nonviolence and love. It looks more like a dictator.

Sent by John Bell | 4:55 PM | 5-19-2008

Take a look at the images from the Martin Luther King foundation
These are nice images.

Sent by Kurt Hudson | 4:57 PM | 5-19-2008

I love the statue. While Martin Luther King endorsed non-violence, he was determined and unyielding in his quest for equal rights and civil liberties. One thing is for sure, King wasn't happy nor complacent.

Sent by Darrell Fricke | 5:23 PM | 5-19-2008

First of all, to all the Sinophobes out there: The "Chinese" artist won the commission. The selection process was open and diversity was sought among the applicants (the committee knew what people would say). The truth is there are not a lot of African-Americans or even non African-Americans who are schooled in this type of sculpture who could have done this piece. Also, wasn't MLK's core philosophy to look beyond the "color of one's skin?" Or does that notion just apply to Asian Americans?

Second, the design was shown to the committee before any work began. They approved it. Why it's a problem now, I don't know.

Finally, the face is beautiful. The artist has done a very good job capturing MLK's features; it looks so life-like. I can't believe it's stone.

Sent by MN | 7:33 PM | 5-19-2008

King appears here as pensive and determined, but I disagree with the radio conversations today stating that he looks confrontational. He appears to be more frustrated, which is completely understandable considering the time. It ridiculous to say that he is entirely confrontational, because King's message was one of peace and love, no matter what someone with a PhD read into the "history".

Sent by Jaclyn | 8:33 PM | 5-19-2008

This is not the King I remember at all. I never remember crossed arms. It appears too confrontational in a negative way. It simply was not his natural stance. Also, let's be truthful about the politics involved with this statue. After the violence in China with flagrant human rights abuses, why would we outsource this project to an artist in China? With all of the granite available in the US, why would we use granite from China? We have been sold toys with lead paint - Made in China. I don't want a MLK statue paid for in part with my tax dollars, made in China!

Sent by Tamara Rhone | 8:53 PM | 5-19-2008

I am a Black man who lived during King's time. I am familiar with his work, his speeches, and his writings. I don't agree with those who would like to "soften" him up. King wasn't a violent man, but he certainly wasn't passive either. He was about love, yes, but much of the time, it was tough love!

My first glimpse of this statue was only after reading a headline regarding some controversy about it. When I first set eyes upon it, however, I searched hard to find what it was that was so controversial about it. I didn't see what the issue was.

I will say though that I did feel some initial reaction to the arms folded, something about that felt a bit odd to me, but in his face, his posture, beautiful! I would feel more proud to see this statue, arms crossed and all, than some weak image to make people feel comfortable.

It occurred to me "I wonder how many of those who say they lived during his time and who are having a problem with this sculpture actually supported him and his work during that time?"

Listening to some of the audio comments, and reading some of the statements here, what seemed to emerge for me, albeit subtle, more than any issue with the sculpture was that broken-record reminder that unfortunately, America still is not ready to "let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream." It takes full, unconditional surrender to for that to happen. I think that too many still want to hold fast to remnants of privilege to allow that sort of deep-healing spiritual vulnerability to occur.

I say let the statue stand as it is, and allow any discomfort felt in this work to serve as a reminder that--no, we have not arrived in the "promised land;" there is still key work to be done!

Sent by Kenneth | 2:31 AM | 5-20-2008

Dr King was nothing if not confrontational. Like Gandhi before him, Dr. King wrapped his confrontation in hope and love. But he was determined and unwavering and strong. He deserves to be remembered in this image.

Sent by Christine | 9:53 AM | 5-20-2008

I think King is challenging us. That is what I see in his eyes. He is asking us confronting us about the legacy asking us, what strides are we making toward the great dream.

Sent by Monique (from Jamaica) | 10:23 AM | 5-20-2008

I was never prouder to be an American then when when I saw the Dr. King statue at Westminster Abbey in London. The world respects Dr. King's message. See his statue at:

Sent by Rich | 10:28 AM | 5-20-2008

Thank God for Stalinist era throwback art! After all, MLK was black and, therefor, anrgy right? Who better to depict this than an artist from a nation where dissent is so openly practiced! The crossed arms and dissaproving brow line are icing on the cake; if only there was a way to put survailance cameras in his eye sockets, then the illusion would be complete! Sorry, this statue is historically inacurate (come on, does is even really look like him?) and, frankly, bad art. Vacuous, vapid, possessing no meaning; a complete simulacrum. Although, judging from the above comments, it seems that some people just can't get enough good ol' fashioned twentieth century facist "art". Go america!

Sent by Mr Mao | 11:02 AM | 5-20-2008

When did Black America forget the REAL Dr. King? When did we give up the REAL man, the fighter, the militant leader who terrified the country's elite and forced real and lasting changes and accept the soft, dreamy, nonthreatening Uncle Marty with whom White America (no I am NOT a racist but I am a realist!) is most comfortable? I taught my children myself our history because I didn't want the propaganda that the schools were teaching them and calling Black History to be the last thing they heard about their people. They both know our history and they both know the REAL Dr. King, the one that I remember and they admire him. Neither they nor I recognize the Uncle Marty with whom White America is comfortable.

Does anyone truly believe that today's Uncle Marty would have had the guts to hold a murderous and dangerous America's feet to the fire and force them to acknowledge Black America's personhood? Does anyone believe that today's Uncle Marty would have been able to force a selfish and self-satisfied America to move aside and so that we could take our rightful place in American society had he been a grinning appeaser?

This is the REAL Dr. King..."I can remember, I can remember when Negroes were just going often, scratching where they didn't itch, and laughing when they were not tickled," King said in his final speech. "But that day is all over. We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God's world." This is not the statement of an appeaser this is the statement of a strong, serious, stern, determined freedom fighter! The Dr. King that I remember was a truth teller who had more in common with, dare I say it, Rev. J. Wright than with the cumbaya milquetoast that is portrayed today.

They want a smiling statue? What had Dr. King, the fiery orator, to smile about when little girls in church were being blown to bits? What had Dr. King, the strong and visionary movement leader, to smile about when Black men were being hung from trees in their own front yards with their terrified families as mute witnesses? What had Dr. King, the respected minister, to smile about when the very symbol of his church was being used to terrorize and enslave his people? What had Dr. King, a Black man father to sons, to smile about when the America that he lived in considered every Black man no matter the age a boy and every Black woman a maid or mammy?

I sincerely hope that the current rendition of Dr. King's statue wins the controversy; but I have the feeling that today's revisionist, comfortable version will win. That will be so very unfortunate because tomorrow's freedom fighters will loose a valuable role model and my children's children will loose a role model in the truly laudable REAL Dr. King.

Sent by Gabrielle Smith | 3:23 PM | 5-20-2008

As I said yesterday and it bears repeating...this statue looks nothing like the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Those are not his eyes...why are his arms crossed?

This is simply at statue...of no one in particular.

Sent by Terry | 4:25 PM | 5-21-2008

King stood up, and stood fast on what he believed. The marching, the speeches, the boycotts, all of it presented a large majority with a minority which was not going turn away. Considering the mans actions, his tenacity and the fact that he did in fact challenge an entire nation to take stock of itself, he did all that through direct confrontation. It was non-violent confrontation, but it was confrontation. Any statue of him which doesn't portray the degree of fortitude it took to do what he did, would be a detriment to our history, and an insult to his achievements. His principles were about standing tall in the face of injustice, looking it in the eye and calling it what it was. To my way of thinking, it's a great tribute. If you've got problems with the statue because the statue is being done by someone who is Chinese, you could not have missed Kings message completely and utterly, and it would probably do you some good to learn more about the man and the principles he espoused and stood for.

Sent by Alex | 7:09 PM | 5-21-2008

I was expecting a very stern and angry look but was instead surprised to find a simple, pensive and commanding presence. What's all of the hub-bub about?

Sent by Cassie | 2:48 PM | 5-27-2008

As a teen who is the future, I know how the younger generation views MLK; a man with a vission and acceptance for all. I strongly do not beleive that this portrays the activist well.

Sent by Jasmine | 11:52 AM | 5-28-2008

This statue seems completely appropriate to me. He looks as though he is observing the world around him, which he most certainly did. It was his inspiration for change. He is also in a very strong stance, with a determined look on his face. This is the kind of aspect I would expect from someone who was not willing to stop fighting until civil justice was achieved and above all signals the strength of a leader.

Sent by Dominique | 4:45 PM | 5-28-2008