Nikolaus Klein SJ
Martin Luther King Memorial
Forty eight years to the day of the "March on Washington", when Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) gave his famous speech "I Have a Dream", the new "Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial" in Washington should be handed over to the public. But the Hurricane Irene and the by it caused gale warning forced on 28 August 2011 the postponement. The opening ceremony was then held on 16 October, and on that occasion also President Barack Obama gave a speech.
Due to its location on a sightline midway between the "Thomas Jefferson Memorial" and the "Lincoln Memorial" at the "Tidal Basin", the new monument stands out from the abundance of monuments along the "Mall" in Washington. With its proximity to the memorials for the two great American presidents, it also points to a conflict that characterizes the American society to date: Thomas Jefferson was not only the author of the Declaration of Independence with its principle of the equality of all people but also slave owner. It was not until Abraham Lincoln's tenure that all slaves got their freedom.
In 1984 members of the academic fraternity "Alpha Phi Alpha" - also Martin Luther King had belonged to it -, suggested to build a memorial. Until its completion 27 years went by. In this time, its conception and implementation were controversely disputed. The debate showed that up to this day in the American public Martin Luther King's life and work is quite differently assessed - despite a national consensus on his importance to the civil rights movement.
The by the initiators accepted design proposal of "ROMA Design Group" (San Francisco) was inspired by a sentence of King's "March on Washington" speech. In it he characterized his dream of equality of all human beings: "With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope." Thus, at the main entrance of the monument there is an almost ten-meter-high granite rock through which a passage has been carved out. After passing this bottleneck, we come across a block of the same rock. It fits exactly into the gap of the granite rock. The figure of Martin Luther King, carved out to three quarters, stands out from its front. The granite block is surrounded by a semicircular wall. Fourteen citations from King's speeches are engraved on it. In addition there is on the right long side of the pedestal of the three-quarter figure King's sentence about the stone of hope hewn out of the mountain of despair, while on the left side there is a paraphrase from one of his sermons:
"I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness." Moreover, the park is planted with 182 cherry trees, which are normally in full bloom in April, the month when King was murdered. This arrangement of texts, the path that has to be gone, and the embedding in the seasonal changes allow every visitor an individual confrontation with the person of Martin Luther King.
Many critics of the memorial pointed to the selection of the quotations from King or the monumental effect of the sculpture created by the Chinese artist Lei Yixin, whereas the African-American writer Maya Angelou hit a crucial point by criticizing that the paraphrase of "Drum Major" was a distortion of the person Martin Luther King. In fact, in the formulation which is found on the pedestal, the crucial point from the sermon of 8 February 1968 in the Ebenezer Baptist Church (Atlanta, Georgia) is no longer recognizable.
In this speech, he anticipated his own funeral service and asked the listeners to avoid talking in this situation about what he performed and achieved in his life. He should rather be remembered as one who was willing to understand his life as service for others: "If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace, a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that's all I want to say."
A recording of this sermon - under the heading "The Drum Major Instinct" it is counted among his most important speeches - was played during the funeral service for Martin Luther King on 9 April 1968. The paraphrase on the pedestal makes King's request regarding the way in which he wants to be remembered by the people a personal statement and ascribes thus to him a position which he had never claimed. What he asked for was the good will of his listeners and fellow campaigners in the commitment to the equality of all people.
Barack Obama took up this topic in his speech of 16 October 2011. He pointed out that it was a disrespect for Martin Luther King, if you would understand the monument as a mere reference to his successes in the civil rights movement. It was rather his intention that the people also know about his setbacks and his doubts: "He would want them to know that he was flawed, because all of us have flaws. It is precisely because Dr. King was a man of flesh and blood and not a figure of stone that he inspires us so. His life, his story, tells us that change can come if you donít give up. He would not give up, no matter how long it took." With this speech, the U.S. president gave an inspiring interpretation of Martin Luther King's wording from his Washington speech about the "Mountain of Despair" out of which we are able to hew a "Stone of Hope."