The road to the King memorial has been difficult from the start. It has taken decades to raise the money, select the site and create the design. But of all the battles over how to remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., this latest round is the most disturbing.
As work continues in China on a model of the 28-foot-tall statue, the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts has issued a harshly worded denunciation of the image of King that is being carved out of foreign granite.
Far from the original concept of a King who is "dynamic in stance, meditative in character," the sculpture now being built "features a stiffly frontal image, static in pose, confrontational in character," says a letter from the commission secretary, Thomas Luebke.
The federal panel wants the sculpture reworked "to return to a more sympathetic idea." But the government's arbiters of art seek far too limited a fix. The problem is not merely one of artistic vision. The centerpiece of the memorial, known as the Stone of Hope, has gone completely off the rails.
The solution is to start over.
It is simply wrong to have outsourced both the sculpting and quarrying of the granite - and especially to China, a country whose government during King's lifetime called him a "reactionary running dog" for his advocacy of nonviolent protest. China even now stands firmly against King's vision of an open, free society.
Harry Johnson, president of the King Memorial Foundation, has argued that hiring a sculptor from China, even if he is a Communist Party member whose works include tributes to Mao Tse-tung, is "no different from the Houston Rockets working with Yao Ming, or Jackie Chan in Hollywood movies." He added that the foundation did not want to say only African Americans can work on the project.
But those analogies don't work: Yao and Chan came here to display their special talents, whereas the sculptor, Lei Yixin, is building the King statue in China, with a staff of 10 other Chinese sculptors, working with Chinese granite on a memorial for display on our country's most prominent showcase of historic symbols.
It is not jingoism but rather a healthy sense of pride and loyalty that mandates that this memorial be designed and executed by those who live in the country that King so inspired and changed.
In Barre, Vt., craftsmen whose roots in stonework go back centuries have provided raw materials and artistry to the World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War memorials. No one ever gave those workers a shot at making the King sculpture.
"We've got incredibly talented sculptors who work wonders with granite," says John Castaldo, executive director of the Barre Granite Association.
Only after legislators protested the outsourcing did the Memorial Foundation agree to give some work to New England artisans. But that work is limited to other parts of the memorial, and still no Vermont granite firm has heard from the foundation, Castaldo says.
The Fine Arts Commission's latest critique "signifies that we were right as far as the Chinese's ability to create a likeness of Dr. King," says Gilbert Young, an Atlanta sculptor who founded the "King Is Ours" protest movement. Young's online petition against the choice of Lei specifies that an African American artist should get the job. But when I asked Young about that, he backed away, saying, "I would have no complaints if this was done in the United States by anyone who knows our culture, like the Asian woman who designed the Vietnam Wall."
So far, opposition to outsourcing the sculpture has come mainly from African Americans and the U.S. granite industry. "White people are afraid to attack the monument because they fear they'll be perceived as racist," Young says. "But Dr. King challenged us to talk about race without making accusations of wrongdoing."
King's message is universal, but his story is American. A memorial on the Mall requires American designers and artists to confront his legacy and thereby continue King's work.