The delicate footwork surrounding an MLK statue at the state Capitol

At 11 a.m. Friday, the traditional ceremony honoring Martin Luther King Jr. will be held at the state Capitol. Gov. Nathan Deal will speak.

Before and after the event, a small, empty patch of grass on the Capitol’s east side, overlooked by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s second-floor office, will become a highly scrutinized bit of real estate.

Until a short while ago, the tract was home to a monument to Korean War veterans, complete with a gas-fired eternal flame. That edifice has been shifted – grouped nearby with other memorials to veterans.

Today, the piece of ground outside Cagle’s office is the future home of a statue honoring MLK, a fact that the governor will underline to his audience – which will include members of the King family.

Deal proposed a Capitol memorial to King last year, but a re-election bid intervened. That done, it is time to face the hurdles, which aren’t so tall as they are delicate.

Location is one. Only last year, the Capitol’s east side entrance was viewed as the back door – not the message you want to send when honoring the preeminent icon of the Civil Rights movement.

But the completion of the $4.4 million Liberty Plaza, which is to be dedicated Friday, should be sufficient proof of the state’s ultimate intention to make the east side the Capitol’s primary entrance.

Following King’s assassination in 1968, Gov. Lester Maddox lined the Capitol grounds with state troopers to keep the martyred leader’s mule-drawn casket off state property. Forty-seven years later, on this chosen spot of ground, an MLK statue would become the official greeter of state visitors. Its neighbor would be a bronze version of former Gov. Eugene Talmadge, the through-and-through segregationist. A visual history lesson, if ever there was one.

The MLK statue would overlook Liberty Plaza, now the designated protest area, and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Tweak its gaze, and perhaps prune an out-of-control magnolia, and the statue could face King’s old pulpit in Ebenezer Baptist Church.

But there are other hurdles. This week, Governor Deal designated state Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, assisted by his House colleague Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, to serve as liaisons to the King family.

Smyre is the longest-serving lawmaker in the Capitol, and a Democrat with extraordinary connections. Wilkinson is a former executive with Coke, a firm with historically close ties to the King family.

Smyre and Steve Stancil, executive director of the State Building Authority, will meet today with the representative of the King family who deals with intellectual property matters. “The family would want to be able to approve the likeness that’s used,” said Smyre – as they did with the MLK monument in Washington. “And we would need their permission to use the name.”

Under legislation passed last year, no public money is to be spent for the statue. All funds would be privately sourced. There has been some concern that the King family would ask for compensation in return for licensing permission, but Smyre said that topic has never come up.

Funding would be channeled through the state’s Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commission, which has the proper 501(c)3 tax status. The commission is now headed by state Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur.

The MLK statue is Governor Deal’s initiative – he wasn’t pushed into it. Nonetheless, this is new territory for Republicans at the Capitol, and they are nervous.

They see the grown King siblings – Martin III, Dexter and Bernice – going to court over whether the two brothers can sell their father’s traveling Bible and 1964 Nobel Peace prize. They understand that all families are dysfunctional in their own way, but it bothers them.

On Friday, the governor will reassure the King family that a long overdue honor is about to be paid. In return, Deal and every Republican in the state Capitol, along with not a few Democrats, will have an ear cocked for confidence-building signs that an uncomfortable family argument won’t jeopardize this venture to make amends.

A private word would suffice. But a public one would be better.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.