A 28-foot-tall granite statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is planned for the National Mall in Washington D.C. Of late, the project has run into a major problem—the charge of racism, or at least of serious racial misunderstanding. The reason is the choice of the sculptor himself, Lei Yixin of China.

Interestingly, the design team, which made the choice Lei Yixin, is made up of a majority of African-Americans. But Atlanta painter Gilbert Young recently launched a Web site to argue that an American artist should have been picked instead, preferably an African-American. And CNN’s famous critic, Lou Dobbs, who thinks all things produced overseas that might take away American jobs are inherently bad, has joined this protest. Dobbs, referring to the committee’s choice and directing his question at sculptor Edward Hamilton who served on the committee, asked: "What in the world were you folks thinking?"

What are these critics thinking? Apparently the question of talent, as today’s Wall Street Journal noted, was not supposed to be the real issue. Make no mistake about this fact; Lei Yixin has plenty of talent. And his life has been a continual fight for human rights and the very kind of freedom Martin Luther King ‘s life represents. Lei spent time in state-owned farm fields where he taught himself to draw. He has long believed King’s dream and has lived it under conditions that should make any fair-minded person respect him both personally and as an artist.

Martin Luther King wanted a society in which little black boys and girls, and little white boys and girls, as he put it so eloquently, would never be judged by the color of their skin. In his world view what would matter was not skin color but character. His message powerfully energized me as a teenage white boy in the South in the 1960s. Indeed, it changed my life while I was a student in the racially charged atmosphere of the University of Alabama shortly after Governor George Wallace stood in the door to registration to stop the admittance of our first black students. Dr. King truly desired justice and equality in the best Christian sense. Indeed, he had a dream about it. I still share that dream. I seriously wonder about so-called black leaders in this country who want to deny gifted non-American artists like Lei Yixin the opportunity to express their obvious talent in creating an appropriate tribute to Dr. King. Their protest underscores just how far we have fallen from Dr. King’s real vision. The leadership vacuum that followed his tragic death opened the door to a new generation of dividers. One can pray that this will change for the better as a younger generation increasingly replaces mine. All of us, black and white, deserve a  better response than this kind of protest warrants.

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  1. Gilbert Young September 11, 2007 at 9:50 am

    We don’t know each other, so I will introduce myself. I am a 66 year old African American artist. My work is considered “socially conscious”. For more than 50 years I’ve created artwork that glorifies the beauty, the history, and the culture of African American people. My work is sold in galleries and gift shops around the world. My pieces have been in movies, and used as set decorations on television shows. I have been commissioned by organizations worldwide to create commemorative works of art. Procter & Gamble commissioned me to create the Salute to Greatness Award presented annually by the King Center here in Atlanta.
    I am old enough to have witnessed first hand prejudice, bigotry and Jim Crow, and I survived it with bitter memories. If you’ll remember your history you will hear only truth when I say that African Americans are not native to this country. We are not immigrants. We did not choose to come here. Our ancestors were brought here by force. Our most indelible footprint in history has been that we as a people are the descendents of those who survived the horrendous institution known as the system of American Slavery.
    There are those whose names run through the history books, Carver, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman and others. Our country makes an effort to recognize them one month each year. You’ll see their accomplishments condensed into a sentence or two, “…one hundred uses for the peanut…”
    But that changed nearly 8 years ago. A handful of black men went to Congress to ask permission to build a monument to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.–African American man and descendent of slaves. He was to be immortalized in a national monument in the capitol city of what is known as the most powerful nation on the planet. His monument would stand throughout time on the National Mall among America’s greatest statesmen. African American History would be important to our nation 365 days a year.
    But through misguidance and greed and ignorance and apathy, a few folk decided to hand this most important commission, this most incredible honor of sculpting the centerpiece of the monument to an artist whose claim to fame are his statues in China of the mass murderer Mao Tse Tung. A deal was made for the stone for Dr. King’s monument to come from China, quarried using slave labor. The workers have no rights and are not even provided proper masks to keep the killing silica dust from their lungs. No granite company in the USA was even allowed to bid on this project before it was outsourced directly to China. How do you think Dr. King would react to knowing a monument to him was being built with slave labor?!
    You presume too much when you imply that this is about race, but you’re not alone. The King Foundation board members join you in spreading that interpretation of our protest. They have one answer, and one answer only, when asked how they allowed such decisions to go forward. They quote King’s “I Have A Dream” speech about people being judged by the content of their character.
    For your information King’s full quote is as follows: “I have a dream my four little children (that’s Dexter, Bernice, Martin, and Yolanda) will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged but by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. King was talking about how black people were being treated back then, and are still being treated to this day. He was talking about how he hoped the world would change toward people of color. The word “Negro” is used 14 times in that speech.
    My favorite quote of King’s, and the one that fits this situation perfectly is “Injustice Anywhere Is An Injustice Everywhere.” And people from around the world, from every nationality and religion agree with me.
    In case you have not heard, Yixin did not win any kind of competition. He is said to have been recommended by a group of his peers. In an article in the Los Angeles Times, he said he was napping in the grass and was approached by the members who offered him the job. Yixin said he had no idea how important the job was until he saw the plan.
    Who in their right mind would risk presuming someone is qualified for a job of this importance? You believe Yixin’s work is high quality. That’s fine. Somebody has liked Ed Dwight’s work enough to commission him scores of times. Ed Dwight was the original artist of record for the King monument. He’s a black artist who has created monuments all over this country. He was dismissed from the project without even the courtesy of a call or letter, and Yixin was slipped into place.
    Lest we forget, Dr. King didn’t die. He was murdered. He was in Memphis to lead a protest against the way garbage collectors–“Negro” garbage collectors–were being treated.
    It’s true, Dr. King’s hope was that someday black people would have the same opportunities as all other people. He hoped that African Americans would be able to attend the same schools, worship in the same churches, live in the same neighborhoods, get the same jobs for the same pay as others. Yet here is our very first (and last?) opportunity to display our culture and heritage in the first ever monument on our National Mall to an African American man and we’re being told we’re still not good enough. It seems that as far as you and the King Foundation are concerned there is nothing wrong with Dr. King’s monument being “Made In China.” You’re wrong. You’re wrong for the sake of our nation, our people, our history, and our children.
    We as African American people should be allowed to take the lead in this first opportunity to honor our beloved hero. We as a people DO care that someone who has sculpted memorials to a mass murderer has been given the honor of sculpting Dr. King. WE THE PEOPLE WILL NOT ALLOW someone from a communist country who knows nothing about the Civil Rights Movement, nothing about Dr. King, and nothing about what King stood for to have his named carved into Chinese granite in the first monument to an African American national hero in the history of this planet. It may be OK with you, but it is not OK with us.
    King is ours.
    Gilbert Young
    Lea Winfrey Young
    & Hundreds of others….

  2. Clint Button December 17, 2007 at 9:28 am

    Many years ago, I came back to Jesus Christ as a sinner saved. After returning to my home in Vermont to care for aging family, I was blessed to come back into my family’s artisan heritage, to Barre- the Granite Center of the World, as a full-time US Granite Industry Sculptor. Apprenticed under my cousin, I now extend a continuous 116 yr family employment heritage as granite artisans. Only a handful of us remain- around about a dozen in the entire US. I now operate my own studio in serving Elberton, GA- the Granite Capitol of the World- replacing my uncle who served there as Master Sculptor for 35 yrs. It’s a tough business in itself-even without unfair Free Trade where we compete with workers physically dying to earn less than a dollar an hour.
    My name is Clint Button, US Granite Industry Liaison to King Is Ours. While the simplistic interpretation of our protest is viewed as race-based, our true protest is based on the process that denied all Americans a fair opportunity to participate in this project. On Nov 8, 2007, the Barre Granite Association sponsored a press conference featuring King Is Ours. In front of a 24 foot tall granite statue, Gilbert Young spoke surrounded by a dozen Master Sculptors and Carvers- including the three who actually produced that 24 foot tall statue, one of which is my cousin that apprenticed me. MLK Memorial Foundation Harry Johnson responded in the press saying of our craft, “It is a lost art, if you will.” After the press conference, all went back to the studios, picked up their tools and went back to carving. It is not a lost art. Denied, maybe- but not lost.
    In June 2005, the MLK Foundation received $10 Million Federal to fund the MLK Memorial. In May 2006, they visited Barre, meeting with one sculptor for 15 minutes and one manufacturer for 10 minutes. Both assured the MLK Memorial Foundation they could handle the project. Neither was ever allowed to bid or even see project specifications. Foundation members even refused to tour the manufacturer’s plant, where several of these Masters were and still are carving.
    Elberton, GA’s granite industry- in size, several times that of Barre- was never contacted at all, even though it is less than two hours from Dr. King’s home in Atlanta and home office of primary supporter US Congressman John Lewis. Claims by the MLK Memorial Foundation to have “surveyed several quarries” at Stone Mountain on a Sunday afternoon in June 2007 fail to expand that all quarrying operations in the Stone Mountain area ceased in the 1970’s, reverting to Elberton by agreement. There are also no granite quarries in America that operate on Sundays.
    In June 2006, the MLK Memorial Foundation spontaneously visited St. Paul, discovered Lei napping on the lawn after completing the only carving he admitted to had ever done completely “on my own.” Lei didn’t understand the scope of the project or of Dr. King until after returning to China, all per his interviews in the LA Times and stone industry publications. But he left St Paul with a check for over $140,000.00.
    Due Diligence has not been served. Federal Monies mean an open bidding process. That NEVER Occurred. No US Entity, granite company, artist, artisan or other ever was allowed a viable chance to participate. Equality has been realized. We have all been denied. Color did not matter.
    The design RFP was equally flawed, with the winners, ROMA Group, naming as consultant to their design concept Dr. Clayborne Carson. Carson served with the MLK Memorial Foundation to assist with origination of the RFP and also judged the entries. Hardly a blind competition. When ROMA and subsidary Devereaux & Purnell prepared to sue over nonpayment for services, they were contractually paid in full and expected to remain under gag about settlement. McKissack & McKissack were then awarded contract without competition.
    As a result, Dr. King will be transfigured into stone, quarried and carved under near slave labor conditions, in a design that closely mimics a statue Lei produced of Mao Tse Dong. Reportedly, per edict of MLK Memorial Foundation Executive Architect Dr. Ed Jackson, all references to race- including the word “Negro”- are to be expunged from Dr. King’s writings when inscribed on the Memorial. Future generations can then reflect upon contemporary but untrue claims of Dr. King’s Communist Party activity, see images of very similar statues of King and Mao and read words inscribed in stone that vary from his published writings. That is a dangerous corruption of history.
    Now joined by the US Granite Industry, King Is Ours is protesting a process and expressing a desire for African American Artistic leadership on the project, just as it seems appropriate to others to have such leadership in various aspects of the project.
    I now have questions about my unbiased support of media sources I used to trust. Following the Nov 8 Barre Press Conference, we were accompanied for several hours by media representatives, including a VPR reporter who heard and recorded all of these industry-based concerns about lack of bid opportunity even though Federal money was involved. With us, he retraced the footsteps of the MLK Foundation visitors and spoke to the same industry experts. But many such facts were never mentioned in the resulting VPR/NPR segment.
    Subsequent NPR coverage, as well as nearly all AP-produced stories, has also avoided such significant truth, focusing only on a racist spin prioritized by too many mainstream media outlets. While it appears that some donors to the King Memorial are also supporters of Public Broadcasting, I would hope that does not impact the integrity of reporting all of the facts. An omission isn’t an untruth, but it can certainly skew audience perception and interpretation. The MLK Memorial Foundation leadership uses this tactic deftly to their advantage.
    Personally, I was pursued, invited and then uninvited from a CNN broadcast panel discussion in Aug 07, being told verbatim, “This is an African American Issue. You will not be needed for tonight’s show.” Still, King Is Ours is painted as the biased party throughout the media and blog world.
    In late October 2007, the CA NAACP passed a resolution demanding full repatriation of the MLK Memorial and investigation of responsible parties. This passed by unanimous vote at their annual state convention, thus represents another significant voice joining King Is Ours.
    Just last Friday (Dec 14, 2007), it was publicized that now US Granite Companies will get to participate in the bidding process. Left out is the fact that there is still no intention to allow any US entity opportunity to produce the feature 28 foot tall central feature statue. That primary focal point of the memorial will still be 100% Made in China. We only get a chance to bid on the leftovers after the best was cherry picked away- even though that $10 Million Federal was in the MLK Memorial Foundation budget before outsourcing occurred. It is still an unfair and exclusionary process. The denied can still sit wherever we want, as long as it is in the back of the bus. Nothing has changed.
    King Is Ours is fighting for all Americans, for the accurate interpretation and representation of our shared history. Whether it’s a person of color who remembers the way it used to be or portfolio-proven American workers struggling to keep artisan crafts alive now, it’s about the process of being American. There is nothing wrong with being Chinese. But Washington, DC is not yet in China.
    Join us. See what so many other Americans have said when they signed the petition linked to King Is Ours website supporting repatriation. This protest is about the process.
    Help us tell the truth. That is all we are doing.
    Jesus Christ has blessed me as a skilled artisan. I believe it is my obligation to not only to honor Him in all I do but also to uphold His gifts to me. By simply telling the truth, as we are instructed to do in His word, we are winning without passing undue judgment. Please do not succumb to simplistic bias. Instead, join us to help honorably commemorate a man who based much of his work specifically upon the teachings of Jesus Christ.
    Thank you for posting these comments.
    Clint Button, King Is Ours- US Granite Industry Liaison

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