King Memorial is not the only controversial monument to come to D.C.

The MLK memorial was changed due to public criticism. Some of out best loved monuments began with controversy and criticism. Photo: AP/ King memorial

WASHINGTON, August 26, 2013 — Celebrating the 50 year anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a Dream Speech,” tens of thousands of visitors descended on the National Mall this past weekend.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial provided a physical manifestation of the speech and the hope delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago.

Visitors have flocked to the monument over the past few days for a variety of personal reasons, but few considered the controversy that has surrounded this monument since it was first conceived. 

The memorial is based on a line from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” Visitors to the memorial literally walk through a mountain of despair to reach the 30-foot statue of King standing in the stone of hope.

The most recent controversy over this monument surrounded a quote on the left side of the stone of hope. It was paraphrased from King’s “Drum Major” speech. It read, “”I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

The actual words were “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”


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Critics have said that the removal of the word “if” changes the entire context. Most notably, poet Maya Angelou bluntly noted that without that word, the quote “makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit.”

The sculptor was brought in to remove the quote from the statue in time for the 50th anniversary celebration.

The concern was to remove it without causing any cracks that would make the piece unstable and to do it in an unnoticeable way.

The change cost between $700,000 and $800,000 according to National Mall Superintendent Robert Vogel, but the work will be paid for from funds raised to build the memorial that were transferred to the National Park Foundation for repairs and maintenance.


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No taxpayer dollars will be used to make the repairs, Vogel said.

Other controversies arose during the construction of the King Memorial, such as criticism of such a white stone being used to depict a black man and the complaint that the Chinese sculptor who created the memorial had once sculpted Mao Zedong.

No memorial has ever been built in Washington D.C. without controversy.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. has become the prototype of American war memorials. It is difficult now to think of this monument as a controversial work of art, as it is now seen as a perfect representation of that war and a place where so many have come to heal.

However, there was plenty of debate before it was built.

The Vietnam Memorial was funded completely by private donations. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation opened up a competition for the design of the memorial to the public, stating clearly that their wishes were for the memorial to be devoid of political statement while honoring the service and memory of the war’s dead and missing, not the war itself.

Despite the fact that Maya Lin’s design was unanimously chosen by the VVMF members, criticism of the memorial arose quickly.

It was criticized for being black, for descending into the ground instead of rising above and for its lack of ornamentation.

Its detractors saw it as a monument “of defeat,” one that spoke more to a nation’s guilt rather than honoring the dead. It was called the “black gash of shame,” “the degrading ditch” and a “wailing wall for draft dodgers.”

The displeasure over the design became so intense that the commission agreed to add the third-place winner of the contest to the site. That monument, a sculpture depicting three bronze soldiers poised as if confronting an unseen enemy, was erected nearby in a more traditional heroic fashion.

All criticism of the wall fell silent the day it was dedicated. It immediately became known as the wall that heals and remains one of the most-visited sites in Washington today.

The National World War II Memorial surrounds the Rainbow Pool located at the end of the Mall’s reflecting pool in a sunken plaza outlined by 56 pillars, wreaths and triumphal arches.

Visitors enter the sunken plaza on ramps that pass by two giant arches which represent the Atlantic and Pacific fronts of that war. Inside, there is a Freedom Wall covered with 4,000 gold stars, each representing 100 Americans that died during World War II.

Critics, while in favor of a WWII Memorial, strongly opposed its location. “The National Coalition to Save our Mall” was formed in order to stop the construction of the Memorial at the Rainbow Pool. They argued that placing the Memorial at that location destroys the historic view between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.

There were also aesthetic objections to the design.

Some argued that the “pompous” style of the monument was favored by Hitler and Mussolini and therefore not appropriate for the memorial.

Others complained that the memorial was full of “trite imagery” such as the two hidden “Kilroy was here engravings” which critics believe degrade the memorial. But proponents argue that this image pays homage to the uniquely American attitude of U.S. soldiers throughout the war.

Some also questioned the need to engrave the names of the states on the pillars inside the memorial since statehood was irrelevant to the federal war effort.

Today, visitors are awed as they enter the monument. Many visitors seem to enjoy posing for pictures under their home state’s name and trying to locate that elusive “Kilroy was here” engraving.

Even the revered Lincoln Memorial has seen its share of complaints over the years.

It took a long time to actually decide to build a memorial to Abraham Lincoln in Washington D.C. But once the decision was made, plans proceeded rapidly.

The first concern was the planned location for the Lincoln Memorial. The critics claimed that the area was “a swamp” and it was not acceptable to build a monument on such a site, due to the lack of respect it implied as well as the concern that it would sink.

Another issue was that the building was planned and built with 36 Doric columns surrounding Lincoln, one for each state at the time of his death. By the time construction was finished, 12 more states had joined the Union. There was concern by some over the lack of state representation. A compromise was reached to carve the 48 state names around the top of the structure. A plaque was later added to include Hawaii and Alaska.

The final Lincoln Memorial controversy is a more recent one and one not much different from the complaints that have plagued the King Memorial.

In the writings placed on opposite walls inside the memorial, the Gettysburg Address appears on one side and his Second Inaugural Address on the other. In both speeches, Lincoln made reference to slavery but those words are not to be found on the walls.

Officials believe that the memorial still represents Lincoln fairly, even with the paraphrased words.

There is no plan to change the speeches on the walls on the Lincoln Memorial.

 


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Susan L Ruth

Susan L. Ruth is a long-time Washington, DC resident with extensive ties throughout the community.  She is a genealogical researcher and writer, and is an active volunteer in the Northern Virginia competitive swimming community.  Susan previously worked providing life-skills to head injured adults. 

Susan and her husband Kerry currently live in Northern Virginia with their three sons, Ryley, Casey and Jack and their American Bulldog, Leila.

 

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