King’s statue a national challenge

Forty-eight years ago on a sweltering August day in Washington, D.C., the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the defining speech of the 20th century. Writing in The New York Times the next day, James Reston predicted, “It will be a long time before [America] forgets the melodious and melancholy voice of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. crying out his dreams to the multitude.”

Reston was right. King has become only the fourth nonpresident and the first African-American to be honored with a monument on or near the National Mall. His memorial all but proclaims him our first black president, the father of a country so utterly transformed that his neighbors — Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and, yes, even Lincoln — would not have recognized it.

The Mall is our nation’s “book,” and each memorial constitutes a chapter in it. Earlier, a 10-story crane lifted the massive head of King into the air and set it onto the monument, as if to emphasize the permanence of his place among us. On Sunday , the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. formally joins and enriches that narrative forever.

The saga of slavery, segregation and civil rights is now cemented to the narratives of Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, World War II, Vietnam and others. Visitors will pass through two bookended, granite monoliths symbolizing the “Mountain of Despair” in order to reach the 30-foot likeness of King’s “Stone of Hope.” An Inscription Wall contains a dozen quotes from King’s speeches, though none from the “Dream.” The monument is commentary enough on King’s — and America’s — dream.

Controversies that have swirled around the memorial, including its made-in-China stigma and the King Center’s insistence on licensing fees, will pass away.

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These and other distractions will give way to the basic function of a public monument. It tells one story and — with the possible exception of the Vietnam memorial, its interpretation having evolved over the years — it tells it one way. The monument always wins.

By its nature, a monument guards the past by erasing ambiguities and rounding off history’s rough edges.

For example, the Inscription Wall will not contain King’s withering attacks on American racism; it will not reproduce his claim, made in the context of his opposition to the Vietnam War, that America is the world’s greatest purveyor of violence.

In memorializing King, we are in danger of forgetting something important about the man — namely, his eloquent anger, which was the anger of the Old Testament prophet, outraged by injustice, war and the suffering of innocents.

If the slave-holding Deist Thomas Jefferson could say, “I tremble for my country, when I reflect that God is just,” we should expect no less from a black Baptist preacher. Does the nation realize it is welcoming into its pantheon not a high-minded politician, but an angry prophet and a pacifist? It is too late. As of Sunday, his ideals belong to us all.

But a public monument also helps reconcile the nation to itself. The King Memorial will play this role in a nation that has been divided over race from its inception, in an America where blacks still lag in virtually every index of equality. In his lifetime, even Martin Luther King, Jr. could not reconcile such disparities.

Yet we have taken an oath in concrete and granite to make the effort. Thus a public monument is also as much about the future as the past. It admits to the world, “We have not always set our sights on equality and justice, but now we shall.”

It’s a big statue reflecting a larger-than-life hope for the nation. King’s challenge remains the same as it was on that August afternoon in 1963: Is America ready for a dream this big?

Richard Lischer teaches at Duke University Divinity School.

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