Is King memorial debate a race issue?

The selection of a sculptor from the People’s Republic of China to carve the image of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Chinese granite for his memorial on the National Mall has some black artists and others outraged.

“They’ve selected a Chinese sculptor from Communist China to do it,” said Morris Howard, 48, an oil painter in Memphis, Tenn. “There’s a lot of dissatisfaction with that.”

The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Foundation chose the overall design of the four-acre memorial from 900 competitive entries in 2000. It then chose sculptor Lei Yixin after seeing his work last summer at a St. Paul, Minn., sculpting competition, said David L. Hamilton, retired program manager for the National Capital Planning Commission.

“It was absolutely incredible,” said Hamilton, a member of the selection committee.

Hamilton said anytime a major project is proposed for the National Mall, which he called “America’s front yard,” there is controversy. When Maya Ying Lin, a Yale University architecture student from Ohio, was selected to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, detractors called her a “gook” and “the enemy,” Hamilton recalled. That memorial was dedicated in 1982, and a statue of three servicemen was added in 1984.

“Dr. King was a national and an international figure,” Hamilton added. “Dr. King’s message was spiritually based. Dr. King was talking about the content of a person’s character, as opposed to the color of his skin. Quite simply, we were looking for the best sculptor.”

A spokesman for the foundation, Rica Rodman Orszag, noted that 90 percent of the committee members that selected Lei are blacks.

What has Howard and Atlanta artist Gilbert Young dismayed is that the committee even considered going outside the black community to make its selection for the artistic elements of the first monument dedicated to a black man on the Mall. Young says the project, which has raised $87 million of a planned $100 million, has been hijacked by corporate interests.

“It’s a smack in our face … It insults our community. It insults our craftsmanship,” said Young, 65, who has created the Web site in protest. “You mean to tell me we couldn’t find a stone in America that was good enough? You mean to tell me we couldn’t find a black artist who was good enough?”

Young has taken to talk radio to drum up opposition to the selection of the ROMA Design Group, the selection of Lei and the use of Chinese granite. He says the sculpture should come from rock hewn from Stone Mountain in Georgia, mentioned in King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The memorial will be along the Tidal Basin between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials.

Howard, 48, said he called WDIA radio in Memphis to raise the issue but that there wasn’t a lot of response. He said the selection of a black artist for such a high-profile project would lift the self-esteem of black youths.

“This is just another opportunity that I hope hasn’t been squandered,” he said.

Beverly Robertson, director of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, said she can understand how black artists could feel “slighted.” She said that normally, when the centerpiece for a historic site is selected, a call for artists is made both in the United States and abroad, and a panel of judges selects the submission that best represents what it’s seeking.

For the King memorial, the selection committee didn’t solicit competitors for the sculpture itself. Instead, it visited the Minnesota Rocks! International Stone Carving Symposium in St. Paul, began discussions with Lei, and then visited with him in China.

As for the selection of a Chinese artist, Robertson said King inspired admiration and respect around the world and “his impact is felt by all people of all races, colors, creeds, religions … He doesn’t just belong to us in this country. He belongs to the world.”


(Contact Bartholomew Sullivan at sullivanb(at)


  1. Richard Melvin

    When I read this article I had mixed feelings about the content until I viewed Lei Yixin’s sculptures. When I earned my degrees in painting and sculpture I had the opportunity to study with Chinese students and found them to be technically proficient. A little known fact is one of the prime models Chinese artists study is Michelanglo’s ‘David’. This student could paint the David from almost every perspective without seeing the sculpture. Plus it is fascinating to note that the Chinese school of socialist realism would choose such a model for study.

    All is all the monument is in very skilled hands.

  2. Bill Robinson

    Pigs get fed, hogs get slaughtered.
    You complainers should shut the f up. Be happy that China is generous enough to donate a memorial and provide a sculptor.
    I can’t believe you are so ungrateful as to bitch that some black wasn’t the sculptor. You are disgusting.

  3. ron kay

    ……means, mainly right wing decision makers…so Karl Rove, figures out another way to piss off and disenfranchise people of color.

    Why does this surprise you ?? It’s merely Bushie Business as Usual.

  4. erika morgan

    Historically public art was supported as a way of contributing to the local economy and raising the standard of living of the local common man. The choice of artist was also considered an art form and an integral contribution to the emotional facet of the final product. It is this emotional contribution that makes art what it is intended to be instead of just a technical copy that any machine could produce. The artist must be emotionally linked to the subject for it to have any value whatsoever. Support of foreign technicians is devoid of any value and their products are worthless. There is little doubt that the current distain for the plebiscite is responsible for the entertaining of a chinaman working a statue of Dr. M.L.King.

  5. bob

    MLK was a commie pinko too, so this is just befitting. Why is a commie being glorified on US soil?

  6. Ross

    You taint everything King stood for when you bitch about a nonblack sculpting the memorial. King stood for equality, not black rights.

    Martin Luther King stood for all oppressed peoples of the world, and the only irony here is that a man from an unfree country should be making a monument to someone who would abhor the civil rights situation there.

    Coming up with a website like kingisours is especially stupid. So now we’re arguing about who “owns” a man who stood for freedom.

    People like that are the reason King’s dream will probably never come true.

  7. lwyoung

    Lea Winfrey Young for
    Gilbert Young, the artist

    To all who have taken the time to write, my husband Gilbert Young and I salute you. Your responses tell us that we were right when we sat down to write the commentary “A Chinese Martin Luther King,” last March. We knew we would not stand alone.

    Ross, your naivete is running rampant. You wrote “You taint everything King stood for when you bitch about a nonblack sculpting the memorial. King stood for equality, not black rights.” It’s obvious the only knowledge you have of King and the Civil Rights movement is what somebody made you read during black history month at school. You obviously have never experienced ANYTHING like the events that were taking place in this country that led King to become the icon he became. You don’t know what you’re talking about.

    We’d like you to know more of the facts. You must make sure to get the facts straight. There was competition for the DESIGN of the King monument/memorial. More than 900 entrants (each paying $75 to apply) hoped to win the chance to immortalize King in D.C. The ROMA group, a white owned firm out of San Francisco, won the “blind” competition. They were assisted with their entry (fortunately for them) by Dr. Clayborne Carson, director of the King Research Institute.

    The sculptor from Communist China, Lei Yixin was CHOSEN. There was NO competition for the sculptor. In fact, Lei Yixin was originally brought onto the project as a sub-contractor. Ed Dwight, who is African American, created the original models for the monument. On another site, someone with the screen name “Quevin” wrote, “Have you seen this artists work? It’s STUNNING. MASTERFUL. MOVING…”

    Quevin was actually complementing Ed Dwight.
    Yixin was brought in to take the model from a 12 inch maquette to a monumental granite sculpture, which he is known for. The dirty part of all of this is that after years of working with the King Foundation, Ed Dwight was kicked to the curb. The contract–along with the designation “Artist of Record” meaning he could put his name on it–went to Yixin along with a contract for Chinese granite.

    This isn’t about Dr. King being “a man for all people.” We all know that. But guess what…All people were not for King. Which is why he died on that balcony fighting for the end of Jim Crow, segregation, racism, prejudiced busing, church bombings, lynchings and all the rest.

    The next time you want to include “all the world” in admiration of King’s philosophy, take a look at the donor list on the King monument site and write down the names of the foreign countries that have donated to the King Monument.
    We as African Americans are charged with the task of carrying on and preserving the legacy, history and culture of African American people. What better way than to claim the right to present OUR history the way WE see fit?