Few American icons are as universally loved as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His struggle for civil rights remains fresh in the minds of many, and today of all days, we're reminded of his work to promote racial equality.
In addition to having his own federal holiday, King will soon have his own monument in Washington, DC, joining the elite ranks of Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, World War II Veterans, and other honored Americans. But King's monument won't be designed by an African American, or even an American sculptor, and it won't be carved from American granite. The new Martin Luther King memorial will be Made in China.
From the perspective of the Martin Luther King Foundation, the decision makes sense. Chinese granite is about a third the cost of U.S. granite, so sculpting the monument in China is a very cost-effective decision.
Furthermore, although the artist, Lei Yixin, is a Chinese citizen, the Roma Design Group, which will design the memorial, was selected out of 900 applicants worldwide. Ten out of twelve members on the committee that chose the sculptor are black.
The leadership of the King Memorial Foundation has also fully supported its decision, and its president Harry Johnson says that Lei shouldn't be judged by his ethnicity, but the quality of his work. According to Johnson, "Dr. King himself was not just a black hero, he was not just an American hero. He was a hero to all the world."
But for many African Americans, a Chinese citizen simply doesn't have the understanding of African American culture to sculpt the King Memorial. An Internet petition, King is Ours, spearheaded by Gilbert and Lea Young, aims to get a million signatures protesting the current plans for the memorial. As of today, they have just under 2,000.
For these protesters, the issue is personal. Part of the pettion states, "King is OUR national treasure. We will not have an artist famous for his statues of the murderer Mao Tse Dung(sic), and tool of a government that labeled King a "reactionary running dog," sculpting the King Monument. . . we demand the right to interpret and present our own historic proclamation in this first ever national monument to an African American man."
Even a Vermont granite company, the Barre Granite Association, has joined in the ranks, and says that its American granite may be a more appropriate way to mold Dr. King.
But, whether the decision to have a Chinese artist design the new memorial is right or wrong, this heated controversy brings up questions that relate to the heart of King's actions. Was his mission to affirm the identity of African Americans, or was it to help establish themes of freedom, equality or acceptance for all citizens? Perhaps both?
Would the decision to choose a sculptor who is neither African nor American be the fruition of King's dream, or would it undermine it? Would he even care one way or another?
Someone could make articulate statements arguing for or against the construction of the memorial, but as the controvery indicates, the root issue that haunted King still remains in our society today. We still have a long way to go before we realize the dream of living in a nation where we're "not judged by the color of our skin, but by the content of (our) character."