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Martin Luther King Jr.Memorial Renews King's Dream

The "Stone of Hope" the twenty-nine foot statue of Martin Luther King Jr. is the centerpiece of the national memorial


By Caryn Freeman

The newest addition to the National Mall has quite a rich background for a monument that hasn’t had its official dedication ceremony. The King memorial is twenty-five years in the making inspired by Kings fraternity brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. King was a member of the fraternity and was initiated into the fraternity in June of 1952. Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity proposed a national memorial should be made in Kings honor in Washington, DC. After Martin Luther King’s birthday became a national holiday in 1986 the erection of a King Memorial on the National Mall gained momentum. However, it was not until the fall of 1996, though, that the Senate and House of Representatives passed joint resolutions to finally authorize the building of a memorial honoring the civil rights leader and in 1998, President Bill Clinton signed the resolution.

In 2006, Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin was selected as sculptor to contribute the centerpiece of ROMA’s design. Lei Yixin is a 57-year-old master sculptor from Changsha in Hunan province. McKissack & McKissack with Turner Construction, Tompkins Builders and Gilford Corporation were hired as the design-build team that would take the memorial from concept to reality. The statue of King stands twenty-nine feet tall and is made of Chinese granite. ROMA design group, a San Francisco based architecture firm was selected out of nine hundred candidates from fifty-two countries as the winning design for the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial.

Naziam Shaabdeen from Sri Lanka feels the work of King is not yet done. Naziam has been in the U.S. for ten years and has learned a great deal about the African American struggle for equality and King’s devotion to equal rights. Nazeem shared with us his vision of the unfilled dreams of King. “I am glad that they decided to have a Memorial built for Martin Luther King Jr. but I still feel that not only in the black community but also for Native Americans there should be more opportunities where education is concerned, lesser sentences for minor crimes, reduced population of those incarcerated and they should be given a lot of job opportunities to make their life better, all the life changing opportunities for them to feel free and enjoy life just as anybody else.”

The Builders
McKissack & McKissack is a product of the oldest minority-owned architecture and engineering firm in the United States. Its roots go back to before the Civil War. “Moses McKissack came to the United States from West Africa in 1790 as a slave and learned the trade of building from his master, William McKissack. Moses taught his skills to his son, who passed them on to Deryl’s grandfather, Moses III. In 1905, Moses III and his brother Calvin launched the first McKissack & McKissack in Nashville, Tennessee in 1905.” Today’s McKissack & McKissack was founded by Deryl McKissack in 1990. When McKissack established her company, she was the fifth generation of her family to carry on the building tradition.

Charles Small a Washingtonian by way of California visited the memorial on Tuesday and saw Jesse Jackson at the memorial. Jackson has been a fixture on the American political scene since the sixties and was a dear friend of Martin Luther King, Jr. Jackson also witnessed King’s assassination in Memphis. Small said it was an incredible experience seeing Jesse Jackson at the memorial. Overall, I thought that the memorial was really well done. Kind of like the same way I felt seeing the Oklahoma City Memorial...that it was just really well done and appropriate. Seeing Jessie Jackson was completely incredible and just made me proud to be in this country and to be able to live in Washington D.C. where only something like that could happen. It's one thing to be able to see the Memorial but another thing to view it while someone who actually knew Dr. King was there. Just a completely surreal experience. I didn't talk to Mr. Jackson as I have a standing policy not to disturb famous people in public. But he looked very moved.”

Controversy

The controversy surrounding the building of the memorial swells from the selection of a Chinese national as the sculptor, the use of Chinese granite instead of a domestic stone, why a black, or at least an American, artist was not chosen. In regard to the selection of Chinese granite the argument was made that the quality of the Chinese granite exceeds that which can be found in the United States. The controversy didn’t end there. As a result of the decision to use Chinese granite human rights organizations criticized the human rights record of the Chinese government and asserted that the granite would be mined by workers forced to toil in unsafe and unfair conditions.

Carla Urquhart who has lived in the Washington metro area for years said she thinks the contribution of an International artist brings King’s dream to life. “I remember learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. as a child and I remember watching and hearing the "I Have a Dream" speech. I felt connected to my aunts, uncles and grandparents in a way that I never felt before but I also felt connected to humanity. I think having an artist outside the U.S. contribute to the Memorial makes Martin Luther King’s dream come alive.”

In September 2010, the memorial’s foundation did promise that it would use local stonemasons to assemble the memorial. However, when construction began in October, it seemed that only Chinese laborers would be used. Local 1 Bricklayers and allied Craftworkers union leafleted the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation offices in downtown Washington, DC. Some questioned why the government would overlook the same group of workers that have worked on nearly every other project on the National Mall when the country was suffering record high unemployment. It was also alleged, following an investigation by the Washington area local of the Bricklayers and Allied Crafts workers union that the workers were not being paid on a regular basis, with all of their pay being withheld until they return to China.
U.S. Arrival

Initially Greece had offered to transport the sculpture from China to the U.S. for free because of its admiration for King. However last year the financial crisis in Greece held up the shipping arrangement. The 159 huge stone blocks sat waiting at a Chinese port, and Greek officials had to tell King memorial organizers they can't ship the blocks because of the economic crisis. Eventually more than 150 granite blocks, weighing some 1,600 tons, were then shipped from Xiamen to the port of Baltimore, and reassembled by a team of 100 workmen, including ten Chinese stone masons brought over specifically for the project.