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Visitors Weigh In on New King Memorial

August 25th 2011

History American - MLK and Sculptor Lei Yixin

Thousands of locals and tourists flocked to the newly unveiled Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial to catch an early glimpse of the civil rights champion immortalized in granite.

“It’s absolutely awesome,” said Washington Mayor Vincent Gray. “You have such high expectations for someone of the stature of Dr. King, but this certainly has met any expectations I might have had,” he said. “It took 26 years from the time it started … but it was well worth it.”

Situated on a four-acre site along the Tidal Basin, the memorial was budgeted at an estimated $120 million and includes an inscription wall filled with inspirational quotes from King, as well as a 30-ft tall statue of the man himself hewn from granite.

“I’m very impressed, I’m very honored to even live in this historic moment,” said visitor Jean Durr of Laurel, Md. “To remember as a small child when he was assassinated and all that he stood for … It’s just a real honor to still be alive and to see this.”

Some have taken issue, however, with the choice of a Chinese sculptor to capture such a singularly American figure.

Over 900 submissions were received from architects, sculptors, and students from around the world. In 2006, master sculptor Lei Yixin from Changsha in Hunan province was named Sculptor of Record for the memorial.

“I wasn’t very happy about it,” Durr said. “I thought it was inappropriate.”

“I wish it was made here, but everything else is being made in China,” said Lorton, Va. resident Rick Anderson. “It had to be made somewhere.”

According to Jimmy Reaves of Marlboro, Md., the entire controversy goes against King’s beliefs and teachings. “If you read his quotes, it speaks to transcending the world,” he said, gesturing to the inscriptions surrounding the memorial. “So why get upset about that, if it’s made in China? At least it’s made.”

As visitors admired the memorial in advance of its official dedication ceremony on August 28th, they also weighed in on plans for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Construction of the museum is scheduled to begin on the National Mall in 2012, with completion slated for 2015. But funding for the project has become an issue. In July, Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.), the ranking member of the House Administration Committee, questioned funding levels for the Smithsonian set in the fiscal year 2012 appropriations bill and called on Congress to fulfill its commitment to fund the museum.

According to a statement from Brady, the FY12 appropriations bill provides less than half of the $125 million in federal contributions requested by the Smithsonian. “Underfunding it now, at this critical juncture, could generate substantial delays and ultimately cost tax-payers significantly more,” Brady wrote. “We have a commitment to the American people which needs to be honored.”

Mayor Gray is hoping to “continue the momentum” from the King memorial to other projects like the new museum. “There are a lot of people who contributed to making this happen … There’s a lot of goodwill that’s been demonstrated,” he said. “I hope we can translate that philanthropy into other causes like the [museum].”

Memorial visitor Lynn Reynolds of White Plains, Md. isn’t quite as confident. “I think it’s just a sign of the times, of what’s going on with our economy,” she said. “I work for Child and Family Services; we’ve gotten cuts too. People at this point are just trying to keep jobs and keep things stable. I think it is very important, and as soon as things get on track, hopefully they can get it done.”

For Reaves, however, today’s economy and political climate make Martin Luther King, Jr.’s message bigger than any memorial or museum. “I think folks are, in my opinion, looking at this as too small of an event,” he said. “What folks try to do is put [King] in a box and characterize him as just for African Americans. But just think; had we not had Dr. King … our country could have slid into a civil war. Nothing comes from that.”

“I think this will be a spark for folks to see what can happen when we pull together as a country,” he added.

Debbie Siegelbaum writes for TheHill, from where this article is adapted.

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