The Martin Luther King Memorial

John ArmstrongRace and Racism

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.