Washington is populated with memorials. Of the highest order are the monuments chosen for sites on the National Mall, the space bound at the east terminus by the United States Capitol, and at the west terminus by the Lincoln Memorial. The works permitted to be placed in that area are thoroughly considered and decided upon by several entities, among them the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission.
One of the recent academic contributions to this discussion is art historian Kirk Savage’s Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape. Savage notes, “The planning authorities in charge of caring for the landscape have an understandable interest in maintaining [the National Mall] as is and preventing it from being overrun by new monuments.”
Every piece of cultural architecture that goes onto the Mall is strictly considered in terms of meaning, design, location, construction—criteria that feed into the final decision of any memorial’s or museum’s potential existence on the most treasured of national spaces.
Obviously, these considerations take time. The Martin Luther King Memorial, to be dedicated on August 28, 2011, is a visual testimony to that process.
The memorial was first envisioned in the mid-1980s by members of Alpha Phi Alpha, a fraternity to which King belonged, and the dream of that group has taken more than a quarter-century to put into place. The date, August 28, was selected because it is the anniversary of King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.
While Martin Luther King Jr.’s presence in Washington is memorialized in the films and photographs of the August 1963 march on Washington, the granite memorial will serve as a permanent presence of the civil rights leader’s time in the nation’s capital.
The sculpture was executed by Chinese artist Lei Yixin and stands thirty feet high; it is a projection from the center of two large pieces collectively called the Mountain of Despair.
Visually, it appears as though King has transcended the Mountain of Despair and stepped forward into the promised land.
Although this monument was discussed on paper and in the studio for years before this day, the location of the MLK memorial—between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials on the Tidal Basin—and its sheer monumentality will provide scholars, art critics, and patrons a subject for discussion for centuries to come.
—Warren Perry, National Portrait Gallery, Catalog of American Portraits
For additional reading on Martin Luther King Jr., please see this article from our blog.
Martin Luther King, Jr., (1929-1968) by Jack Lewis Hiller (b. 1930), Gelatin silver print, 1960, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution: gift of Jack Lewis Hiller
Martin Luther King, Jr. / Boris Chaliapin / Watercolor and pencil on board, 1957 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution / Gift of Time magazine
Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).