NEAL CONAN, host:
And now it's time for the Talk of the Nation Opinion Page. A statue of Martin Luther King Jr. will be placed on the National Mall here in Washington, D.C., but not without controversy. U.S. Commission of Fine Arts complained about the design by Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin. The social realist style, it said, recalls a genre of political sculpture that's recently been pulled down in other countries. The letter also said it made King look too confrontational.
Harry Johnson, the president of King's National Memorial, has asked the statue be redesigned. And in an opinion piece for The Root called "A Stone-Faced Lie on the Mall," Ibram Rogers says that would water down both the man and the meaning of his message. This is a story about how our heroes are portrayed and why it matters. You could see a picture of the statue design on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
What image of Dr. King is appropriate for the National Mall? Who gets to decide? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Ibram Rogers is a doctoral student in African-American studies at Temple University. His op-ed in The Root is called "A Stone-Faced Lie on the Mall." He joins us now from the studios of Audio Post in Philadelphia. Very nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. IBRAM ROGERS (Graduate Student; Temple University): Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.
CONAN: And describe the design that you saw, the original design, and what you liked about it.
Mr. ROGERS: Well, the design, of course, had King folding his arms. He was - he had a very stern look on his face, and he was glaring, I guess, at the viewer. His mouth was, you know, together, and essentially, to me, he looked, you know, confrontational, and you know, I argue in my piece that, you know, King, you know - if there's anything that King was, it was confrontational. If you ask all of the people who he confronted during his movement, I think they would, you know, say that he was confrontational, and you know, that the commission arguing that, you know, this statue, you know, is not suitable, to me is just preposterous.
I mean, I think that, you know, that assessment, you know, is at best to me a reflection of historical ignorance, as I write in my piece, or at worst, is part of a larger societal effort to sort of distort King's legacy. And you know, I just personally think that, you know, any image of King, a permanent image of King that's going to be 20 feet, 28 feet, in Washington, D.C., should look confrontational.
CONAN: Should look confrontational. The picture from which the statue is taken, he doesn't look that confrontational. It's a little more philosophical. Of course, you don't need to stay true to the picture either.
Mr. ROGERS: No, you don't. But, you know, I mean, King was an activist. Before he was anything else, he was an activist. He was a Christian preacher who was an activist, and to me an activist is, by nature, confrontational, and I don't think anybody would argue that King was not an activist. King was an activist just like George Washington was an activist, and George Washington confronted Great Britain just like King confronted America.
So to me, you know, this is very, very important, in terms of, you know, displaying King's legacy, that he looks, you know, confrontational. As I stated in my piece, he confronted Montgomery, Birmingham. He was very, very - specifically during the last couple years of his life - interested with poverty. And you know, two reasons - two of the reasons why I argue that he should look confrontational is because - or that he should look not happy, you know, with America, is because to me he wouldn't be happy with America right now.
He was interested in poverty, and the poverty rates, or really the number of Americans living in poverty, you know, has not changed much. In the late 1960s, it was about 39 million Americans living in poverty. The recent statistics by the U.S. Census Bureau report that still about 36.5 million Americans. So I don't think...
CONAN: Too many but fair enough to say that there are many more Americans now than there were then.
Mr. ROGERS: Oh, of course. But I think that would be too many for King.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners in on this conversation. We're talking with Ibram Rogers about the statue of Martin Luther King that's to be erected on the Mall here in Washington, D.C. If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's begin with Maureen, Maureen with us from Middleburg in Ohio.
MAUREEN (Caller): Hi, Mr. Rogers. Hi, Neal.
MAUREEN: I saw the photograph of the statue in the New York Times before I read the article. I didn't even get the blurb of what the argument was about, and I thought, boy, that looks stern. You know, I was taken aback by it. And I suppose I understand what you mean by saying he's confrontational in the issues that he wanted to deal with, but as generations succeed, they will not be eyewitnesses any longer, but they will be people who hear the story. And you might want a different image for that, because it's going to be fixed in granite forever, and as people look at it, the image itself will take over their interpretation, you know what I mean?
Mr. ROGERS: Yes.
MAUREEN: I think - I was thinking, well, what would you replace it with? As you guys were talking, and I thought, I don't know. But he looked like he was looking down and giving an ultimatum. And I know, maybe the bottom the line, that's what he was doing, but if you remember he takes everything from Gandhi and much of his nonviolent style. It might be better to find a different look so that the look puts in the sweetness and the bravery of the man and not so much the confrontation. We all know he confronted, but he looks like he was let's get down to business here, people. And I don't think that's what he should look like, somehow.
CONAN: Extending through the years, even if you're right, Ibram Rogers, that Martin Luther King would be unhappy with America today, that's not to say 20, 50, a 100 years from now, it would be the same.
Mr. ROGERS: Well, I think, you know, when you think of King's legacy, to me you think of somebody who is extremely spiritual and also someone who's extremely rational. And I think, you know, as he stated once, you know, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, that to him, you know, if there is any injustice 50 years from now, that this 2-foot statue should speak to people to try to, you know, eliminate that.
And I'm not sure whether there's going to be injustice, you know, in America and in the world 50 years from now, but I do know that there is injustice now, and I know that, you know, King would like to move those people, would want to move us, would want to move Americans, you know, to sort of confront, you know, those injustices.
MAUREEN: May I say something?
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
MAUREEN: The statue then will represent the philosophy, and the man will no longer be present, you know what I mean? The statue will transcend the man and become the philosophy. And...
MAUREEN: And I understand that, and it might have to do with the face. If you elevated the chin a little bit, and just put the eyes upward, it might look different than if you have him looking down with that posture. But it's going to end up doing two things. It's either going to eclipse King personally and represent the philosophy that we all would like it to be, or it's going to represent King and have the philosophy implied. You know what I mean?
Mr. ROGERS: Yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROGERS: And I think, - I just would say very quickly that, to me, a person is their philosophy, like, that's what undergirds King. I'm sure you have a philosophy that drives every other thought that you have, and to me, King's philosophy should be, you know, displayed through this.
MAUREEN: Sure, I hear you, but if you put it in stone, moment to moment to moment, I might feel one way. If you fix me that one way in stone forever, then my philosophy is defined by that moment rather than the complexity that he was. I'm sure he got mad, I'm sure he felt like crossing his arms and looking down at people like a stern father, but I never saw him do it. And I'm a contemporary. I never saw that happen. He looked...
CONAN: All right, Maureen...
MAUREEN: Pardon me?
CONAN: I just want to give some other callers a chance.
MAUREEN: Sure, thank you.
CONAN: OK, thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can go now to - this is Mark, Mark with us from Minneapolis.
MARK (Caller): Oh, hi. I also am an older person so I remember Martin Luther King. I remember the impact he had. He was a loving Christian who confronted people with great moral authority. He never appeared to be stern or angry, but he always had a great moral presence, and that statue, which I've seen pictures of looks, like a statue of Mao or Joe Stalin. I think it's a grave injustice to the man.
And I understand your - the guest you have on and his feelings about his being confrontational, but it was the way in which he was confrontational, you know, very much like Gandhi. He basically held the country to account for its moral failings, and he did that in a way that really didn't allow people to get purchase on him because he always did it in such a forthright, moral and loving way. I mean, he was almost the ideal Christian.
CONAN: It seems to me we all remember a Martin Luther King differently. I guess we all remember the man that we saw, the man that connected with us. As a younger person, I wonder, Ibram Rogers, you would like to see him the way you see the statue originally?
Mr. ROGERS: Exactly. And to - I am clearly are - I'm younger, so I wasn't able to experience King in a way some of the older callers have, but you know, so I have learned King through reading of history, and to me, history speaks of a King who is similar to a lot of mothers and fathers all over the world who, when their children do something wrong, you know - and this what the statue, you know, appears like it does to me - when their children does something wrong, they just look at them, fold their arms and they give them this stern look, and as a child, you know, I knew, you know, what I did wrong.
Mr. ROGERS: I knew that I had to change. And to me, that's what King is doing in the original statue.
Mr. ROGERS: He's looking at us and telling us we have to change.
CONAN: Mark, thanks very much for the call. And Ibram Rogers, thank you very much for your time today.
Mr. ROGERS: All right. Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Ibram Rogers joined us from Philadelphia. Tomorrow, advice on the job market, plus, Michael Douglas will join us.