Monday, May 12, 2008

May 12, 2008

     The U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, bless its heart, has said that a proposed statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. for a memorial on the Tidal Basin should be reworked because it is too "confrontational"  and reminiscent of the socialist realism you see in art left over from the Soviet era.  The Commission is absolutely right.
     I don't know if you've seen the picture of the statue, but it shows a tough, almost angry-looking King, arms crossed, hard-faced.  It reminded the Commission of socialist realism.  It reminded me of, say, a Chicago ward boss telling some subordinate, "Dammit, I want that done right now! Get on it!"
     King, of course, did not change America by giving orders.  He changed it with softer words, persuading most of us that racial segregation was wrong.  He led a movement which saw Congress pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, two laws which ended legal segregation and made America a better place for all of us--black, white, whatever.
     The law says that no project like the King memorial can proceed without the Commission's approval.  And so Harry Johnson, the chairman of the memorial group, said a new design will be submitted next month which includes a "softening" of Dr. King, and a different facial expression.  That's good.  The statue is twenty-eight feet tall and seems, in its current form, to glare at us.
     Many Americans knew Dr. King better than I;  I was out of the country for part of the time he was changing it. 
But I went to a march or two, a press conference or two, and had some feeling for the kind of man he was.  Non-violent, of course, and a persuader, not a barker.  That refusal to bark exasperated some of his followers at times, but in the end I think it helped him.  
     So I hope the new statue is more like the man I remember, and less like some tough guy running a ward.           

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