Memory. Symbolism. Knowledge.
It isn’t so often that an opportunity presents itself…an opportunity to gaze upon something that few others have yet to see.
Of course I was by no means the first, the only, and after August 28th I certainly won’t be one of the few–but yesterday I had an opportunity to see the memorial to Martin Luther King prior to dedication.
The tour, made possible by the DC chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects, was an hour long journey through the memorial’s creation — which began with a discussion by a group of brothers from Alpha Phi Alpha (the first African American fraternity) about inclusion, and that the lack of recognition of African American contributions to the American story in DC was why African American’s did not come to the National Mall. After the origin story our guide walked us through design and development–explaining how an international jury of 11 judged 900 projects from 52 countries and brought them down to less than twenty in 3 days…and then to one.
With this Faith….
During the tour we walked through the process of meaning. Who was this for? Why is it being built? Where should we build it? Despite the initial conversation, this memorial is not meant only for African Americans. The foundation sees it as an international monument to a man who advocated for peace across the globe.
Symbolism. As our guide, Dr. Ed Jackson, Jr. (executive architect), walked us though the Foundation’s intent he also described the path of choosing a sculptor (Master Lei) based on artistic merit, to the quotations (each one following along the themes of love, justice, democracy, and hope) that will edge along the site each revealing a man, though imperfect personally, that saw beyond civil rights to human rights.
The memorial sits along the tidal basin juxtaposed between Jefferson and Lincoln. While the connections between this historical lineage are obvious, it is clear that the memorial is speaking to the individual–emphasizing, as King did time and again that each of us have the potential to ask/demand change. Day or night his face on the largest free standing granite statue serves as a mechanism to encourage and remind visitors of the struggle:
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.
This is the memorial. Stepping through a narrow passage between two natural rock formations-despair, and coming around to see the relief of Martin Luther King with his message of hope. An image intense in its realism, right down to the veins on his hands.
On Memorials and Meaning:
There are realities to consider when building a memorial on the National Mall. In a post 9/11 world stopping cars from running aground are just as important as determining the symbolism of cherry blossoms that come alive, every year, around the time of MLK’s assassination. Details matter and I couldn’t help wondering, as we walked around the space, of what meaning visitors will derive from the memorial. Will they sense the work of the architects, historians, the King family? Will they sense all the hands and hearts and minds that brought it to this existence?
Will they see, as I do (and despite this not being a civil rights memorial), the influence of Gandhi and the knowledge that without the work of King and the courageous acts of ordinary people who took a stand during sit ins and freedom rides that my life would have been drastically different.
What meaning will they gain from the visit? The Foundation and all of the others involved in the project have thought long and hard about the message they want to convey, however meaning, like many other elements of the past, are derived from the individual. It is that meaning which will determines the legacy of Martin Luther King and tell us if this memorial will enable that message to withstand the test of time.
Why no pictures? While I did take some there was a request to not post the image online. I will try to post them following the dedication on August 28. In the meantime you can see them on the monument site. Check out this article about the memorial in the Washington Post.
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