Arts & Life


From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

Creating a sculpture of an iconic person can be tricky business, especially when that sculpture is planned for the National Mall in Washington, and when that person is one of the most beloved figures in American history. The sculpture in question: a massive depiction of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

A government agency wants it changed. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial is going to be big. The site for it is a four-acre plot on the Tidal Basin, not far from the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials. Water, stone and trees are the primary elements in a design inspired by a line in the Dr. King's I Have A Dream speech:

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (Late Civil Rights Leader): With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.

BLAIR: In the original design for the MLK memorial, a bust of Dr. King emerges almost organically out of the side of the Stone of Hope. To get to the stone, you would walk through two rocks symbolizing the Mountain of Despair. That design won the competition set up by the U.S. Fine Arts Commission, the federal agency that approves anything that gets built on the National Mall, headed up by Thomas Luebke.

Mr. THOMAS LUEBKE (Head, U.S. Fine Arts Commission): The central metaphor of the memorial of experience was mountain of despair. This is a difficult that our country that went through and Dr. King was the reason why, he led this movement. And so he's part of the stone of hope.

BLAIR: But in the new model for the statue, Dr. King is much bigger. His arms are crossed defiantly and he has a solemn look on his face. And that bothered the Fine Arts Commission. In a letter calling for revisions to the statue, Luebke wrote that Dr. King's character had gone from meditative to confrontational.

Mr. LUEBKE: It looks more like the Stone of Hope is just a background. There's now a more full body sculpture of Dr. King in a much more rigid, symmetrical stance.

BLAIR: The architects of the MLK memorial are considering what modifications they'll make to meet the commission's request. But Harry Johnson, Sr. likes the new idea of Dr. King standing tall. He is president of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Foundation.

Johnson agrees that Dr. King's facial expression needs softening, but he wants the statue to be an expression of strength.

Mr. HARRY JOHNSON, SR. (President, Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Foundation): The bottom line is, what depiction of Dr. King do you want? Do you want a depiction of a man, an African-American man, not standing tall? The Dr. King we want to see is going to be a man, a warrior of peace, but not a warrior of wars.

BLAIR: The new design for the Dr. King statue was carved by Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin. And any controversy about his work is fodder for the people who opposed the decision to hire him in the first place. The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Foundation was criticized for not hiring an American artist. Lei Yixin has carved many Chinese officials over the years, including Communist leader Mao Zedong.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.

SEABROOK: Check out the model of the proposed statue at our Web site,

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