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)