Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Great White Hope: The National Martin Luther King Memorial

Char Roone Miller
George Mason University

The U.S. census recently reported that the income gap between the richest and the poorest in the United States has doubled since 1968 (from a ratio of 7.69 to 1 to 14.5-to-1 in 2010), the United States is currently active in not one but three major wars, and there are more black men in American prisons today than there were slaves in 1850.  You don’t need a crystal ball, or a giant granite one, to know Martin Luther King’s response to this condition.

In spite of the justifiable and touching power the new Martin Luther King Memorial on the National Mall in D.C. takes from our nostalgia for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, it fails to move us any closer to understanding or realizing how a living monument to King's dream requires our resistance to militaristic and economic forms of oppression.  The Memorial whitewashes any sense of King as activist, disrupter of power structures, and critic of economic systems.  It hides the struggle demanded by King.

A figural 30 ft-tall sculpture of MLK emerges partially formed from a block of granite, called The Stone of Hope, which appears to be the middle third of a giant boulder, sliced out and pushed from between the other two slabs of rock—The Mountain of Despair—towards the tidal basin on the National Mall.  The colossal white granite memorial, located at the cartoonish address of 1964 Independence Ave., SW DC, sternly faces the Jefferson Memorial, with its back towards the Lincoln.

None of the fourteen quotations carved into the wide marble wall that arcs around and behind the statue of King refers directly to King's work against economic injustice.  One quotation, from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, does suggest the audacity of his desire that all people receive three meals a day.  Unfortunately, this phrase becomes a touching platitude when removed from demands for state action or public policy.  The architect carved two additional quotations onto the sides of the statue of King, including one that has provoked significant criticism in which King appears to be describing himself as a “drum major for justice.” 

King’s original quotation suggested that he didn’t mind being deprecated in the service of the cause even if critics wanted to call him a “drum major for justice.”  Exactly the meaning suggested by the redaction; Maya Angelou said that edit made King look like an "arrogant twit."  The Foundation missed the point, but, worse, they missed an opportunity and wasted valuable space with a clich├ęd phrase, when King authored so many pithy statements of purpose.  King's remarks, for example, concerning the seat of the national government are remarkably appropriate for display in Washington DC:  “We will place the problems of the poor at the seat of government of the wealthiest nation in the history of mankind.”  The statements displayed on the memorial fail to provide much meaning to King’s vision, even as they strategically lack any reference to his economic demands.

This shouldn’t be too surprising.  In spite of their repeated attempts to destroy organized labor, suppress wages, and general success at shifting wealth to the very rich, major corporations paid for this memorial.  Coke, Ford, Target, ExxonMobil, BP, FannieMae, JPMorgan Chase @ Co., NFL, McDonalds, and Lehman Brothers all donated to the Memorial and are listed on the major contributors page.  General Motors donated $10 million.   Wall-Mart gave $1 million. The Foundation proudly proclaims the faith these major donors have in King’s dream.  “By their generous support,” the website proclaims, “they’ve demonstrated something truly remarkable.  They’ve shown the breadth of support that exists for Dr. King’s vision, from the man on the street to boardrooms on the fiftieth floor.”

Those boardrooms, high above the people occupying the street, did not offer large donations in order to memorialize the fact that King was assassinated in 1968 while in Memphis supporting striking sanitation workers; that just days after her husband’s murder Coretta Scott King and 42,000 people peacefully marched through Memphis to demand that the Mayor of Memphis recognize the sanitation worker’s union; that at the time of his assassination King was hard at work on the Poor People’s Campaign.   Neither Walmart nor Target, companies that have dedicated massive financial resources to fighting labor unions, could be expected to memorialize King’s vision for the power of organized labor.  Certainly not Coke, with its history of fighting unions in Guatemala and accusations that the company has used prison labor in China, and its probable complicity in the death of union organizers in Columbia.  These donors, I claim, paid for a Memorial that would help us forget that the revolution, as Gil Scott-Heron sang, "does not go better with Coke."  They got what they paid for; the Memorial does not offer any sense of the stern criticism King would certainly direct toward the labor practices of many of these companies.  The problem is not that they gave money for the Memorial, it’s that the Memorial fails to display the conflict those donations have with King’s labor advocacy. “We call our demonstration a campaign for jobs and income,” King wrote, “because we feel that the economic question is the most crucial that black people, and poor people generally, are confronting.” (A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., Pages 67-69Simply allowing the Memorial to deliver King’s message concerning the importance of organized labor on a monument paid for by labor busters would offer a better representation of the struggle that King advocated.

Corporations were not the only donors, nor were they the only donors with labor policies in serious conflict with King's struggle.  The Memorial, as many have remarked, was created in China.   The Chinese government, probably the largest single donor to the memorial, gave the foundation $25 million--the U.S. government only gave $10 million in matching funds.  The Foundation naively denies that the Chinese donation influenced their decision to create the memorial in China.  Union representatives in the United States protested the contract with China and eventually received a promise from Johnson that union labor would be used to assemble the monument in the United States.  Then in September of last year, the union discovered that the Foundation had reneged on this written promise and that unpaid workers from China were working on the Memorial.  Harry S. Johnson, president and CEO of the Memorial Foundation, evoked a hypocritical claim to racial harmony to hide the issue of economic exploitation. On September 8, the Foundation asserted:  “While 95% of the work is being done by American workers, we strongly believe that we should not exclude anyone from working on this project simply because of their religious beliefs, social background or country of origin.”

The Foundation consistently gestured toward pluralism and artistic integrity to make the exploitative dimension of their economic choices disappear.  According to Ed Jackson Jr., the Executive Architect on the project: “The granite for King's statue was chosen because when lit at night, it lends a brownish tone to King's likeness. The stone, however, only exists in China.” though, he added, “some wanted it to come from the United States.”  All the white marble on the National Mall, whether from China, Italy or New Hampshire, gets darker when the sun goes down.  Jackson’s ridiculous claim about the color of the statue raises another, more obvious, question:  why not use black granite? Martin Luther King was Black. 

Birmingham, Alabama King Memorial
The Foundation’s decision to represent Dr. King in white granite treats the color of his skin as a peripheral issue, when in fact it made King who he was.  King certainly looked to a time when people no longer made judgments of value based on the color of skin but in the United States white has never been the neutral absence of color. That the Foundation chose white as an abstracted representation of King continues, regrettably, the social positioning of whiteness as neutral, which requires the production of other colors as derivative or deviant.

The assertion, given broad currency in the 1960s, that “black is beautiful” highlights a politics of aesthetic taste. The color and shape of the statue of King appears as a visual and sensual event. The body with its attractions (of color, shape, size, strength, weakness, etc.) functions as a political trigger for desire and emulation.  Plenty of our responses to the appearance of the human body are beyond and before our understanding of actions, arguments, and behaviors. Such responses are an important part of our political life.  Monuments operate in this field.  King’s physical appearance moves us; King deserved a monument that would move us. 
Binghamton, New York King Memorial
To build a colossal statue to King on the Mall is to represent him in many of the terms that have solidified white male privilege (with its connections to national and imperial forms of domination). The representation of emperors, kings, and presidents in sculptural form often presented the leader as transcending the limits of the body.  It is undoubtedly an important moment when the body of the son of a Black preacher, himself the son of a sharecropper, appears as a giant white god. 

It is inescapably necessary to represent King in earlier categories of power and value but the valuable struggle comes in using that positioning to undercut the borrowed hierarchy. Borrow the trappings of power but only to transform the terms of success. Take some money from Coke but spend that money to support the Columbian food workers union, SINALTRAINAL.  This Memorial fails because it never displays the struggle necessary for political life.  King’s life was a life of this struggle.

King's arrest for 'loitering,' 1958
It’s exciting to see Martin Luther King Jr. occupying such select space on the National Mall but we can’t afford to loose his critiques of the forms of value and prestige that the Mall and its Memorials represent.  Lehman Brothers and Coke may have paid for this Memorial but the real monument to King are the activists occupying Wall Street and DC in an attempt to transform notions of privilege and power through conflict and struggle.



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