Some Say Memorial Design Misrepresents MLK Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. Sculpture i i

Lei Yixin's sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. will be located on the National Mall near the site where he gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963. Courtesy of Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, Inc. hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, Inc.
Martin Luther King Jr. Sculpture

The sculpture of Dr. King and a photo of Dr. King taken around 1960.

Courtesy of Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, Inc.
Martin Luther King Jr. in 1960 i i

Martin Luther King Jr., photographed around 1960. Michael Ochs/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Ochs/Getty Images
Martin Luther King Jr. in 1960

Lei's sculpture of Dr. King and a photo of Dr. King taken around 1960.

Michael Ochs/Getty Images
MLK Sculpture i i

Some say that Lei Yixin's sculpture makes King look like a black Chinese man. Others say that critics are being unfair to Lei because of his nationality. Courtesy of Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, Inc hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, Inc
MLK Sculpture

Some say that Lei Yixin's sculpture makes King look like a black Chinese man. Others say that critics are being unfair to Lei because of his nationality.

Courtesy of Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, Inc

After decades of planning, construction of a memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. is set to begin this April on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Although there are memorials of King around the country, this is supposed to be the King memorial to trump all King memorials. It will also be the first memorial on the Mall honoring an African American.

Not all of King's supporters are happy, however. In fact, some of those who have pushed hardest for the memorial to be built are now saying that the memorial is an affront to the iconic civil rights leader's legacy.

Central to the debate is the nationality of the artist commissioned to create the 30-foot-high statue of King; sculptor Lei Yixin is a Chinese national.

"It's an insult. This is America and, believe me, there's enough talent in this country that we do not need to go out of the country to bring someone in to do the work," says Gwen Moore of the California Chapter of the NAACP, which recently passed a resolution against the selection of Lei.

"Basically, the resolution points out that to have a country that has one of the worst human rights records be in charge of the monument is a slap in the face," Moore says.

Other objections fall along aesthetic lines.

"Dr. King never stood like that, nor wore clothes like that, nor did he look like that. It is a shameful tragedy," says Ed Dwight, an African-American sculptor who submitted a model for the project that lost out to Lei's. "Even a Chinese critic said the design looked like a very big Chinese black man."

Lei's sculptures of one particular Chinese man — Mao Zedong – are also at issue. The idea that an artist who has created memorials to someone who has killed and imprisoned millions would be the one to create the most important sculpture to date of King, has some people reeling.

Harry Johnson, the head of the MLK memorial foundation, says that critics are ignoring the real reasons that Lei was chosen.

"I think it's their right to voice their opinion. I respect their right, number one. But number two, I don't think they have all the facts on Lei and why he was chosen," Johnson says.

The design committee chose Lei because there was no African-American sculptor who could do a 30-foot statue, specifically in granite, Johnson says. Furthermore an African-American architecture firm is still in charge of the overall design. Also, Lei was persecuted and imprisoned by the Chinese government, Johnson says, so it is unfair to align him with it.

"I believe Dr. King stood for all people of the world," says Johnson. "His message was we should not judge color of skin, but content of character — artistic character."

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