MLK Jr. memorial stands up to controversy

7:40 AM, Jul 5, 2011   |    comments
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WASHINGTON -- Less than two months before the Aug. 28 dedication in Washington of a major memorial to Martin Luther King Jr., organizers of the $120 million, 4-acre site are working to assure the public that the selection of an artist from China was made with great care and that the family of the civil rights leader is in support.

For years, critics have questioned the decision to go outside of the United States for a sculptor and have said King's 30-foot likeness appears too Asian or too confrontational.

But Ed Jackson, executive architect of the Martin Luther King National Memorial, tells supporters that King's three children approved the granite likeness crafted by Chinese master sculptor Lei Yixin.

King's namesake son, Martin Luther King III, told USA TODAY that Lei has done well.

"I've seen probably 50 sculptures of my dad and I would say 47 of them are not good reflections -- that's not to disparage an artist," King said in an interview last week. "This particular artist -- he's done a good job."

The younger King's comments are the latest in a debate that has simmered since 2007, when fundraisers selected Lei to create the centerpiece after observing him at work at a stone carver's symposium in Minnesota.

Critics have ranged from a sculptor who was on an earlier planning team to academics to union members who balked over a decision by the memorial foundation to pay for a handful of Chinese workers to travel to Washington to help assemble the statue. Backers are addressing the concerns as the foundation races to raise the final $6 million needed.

The King statue,  according to the foundation, will be 11 feet taller than the statues in the nearby Lincoln Memorial and Jefferson Memorial, which the National Park Service says measure 19 feet each.

Foundation representatives chose Lei after seeing his work and learning that he was experienced at creating large, public statues, Jackson told a group of Washington-area ministers who toured the site last Wednesday. Jackson gave the 20 ministers a recounting of the foundation's relationship with Lei.

Jackson recalled traveling to Lei's studio in China and discovering  the artist had already created a miniature rendering of the statue.

When criticism bubbled up in the United States over Lei's selection as sculptor and of his arms-folded interpretation of King, Jackson and other foundation representatives traveled to China to consult with Lei.

"He had already created ... three additional sculptures of Dr. King's head," Jackson said.

Jackson brought photographs of the four heads to two of King's children, Martin Luther King III and Bernice King, and asked which looked most like their father. "The response was the first one," Jackson said. "I informed them that this was the one that had generated all that controversy about their father looking confrontational. Martin said, 'Well if my father was not confrontational, given what he was facing at the time, what else could he be?'"

Jackson said he did not ask King's third child, Dexter King, because he lives in California and is harder to reach than his siblings in Atlanta.

On the other side of the debate is Ed Dwight, a long-term detractor. The Denver-based sculptor created some of the earlier, smaller renderings of the statue. Dwight's understanding was that Lei would help him create the piece for the site, but the foundation selected Lei to do that task by himself. Dwight says King would be upset if he knew the statue was tied to a sculptor from a communist country.

"Dr. King would be turning over in his grave if he knew," Dwight said. "He would rise up from his grave and walk into their offices and go, 'How dare you?'"

The ministers who visited last week were of a different mind-set.

"You got him," H. Beecher Hicks Jr., pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church, of Washington and Largo, Md., told Harry Johnson, president and CEO of the memorial.

Hicks met King as a boy when King would dine at his home. After viewing the statue, he said, "my impression was, to use the words of my grandchildren, was to just stand back and say, 'Awesome.'"

The Aug. 28 dedication is set to coincide with the anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

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