It is one of the enduring mysteries of American history — so near-providential as to give the most hardened atheist pause — that it should have produced, at every hinge point, great men who matched the moment. A roiling, revolutionary 18th-century British colony gives birth to the greatest cohort of political thinkers ever: Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, Washington, Franklin, Jay. The crisis of the 19th century brings forth Lincoln; the 20th, FDR.
Equally miraculous is Martin Luther King Jr. Black America’s righteous revolt against a century of post-emancipation oppression could have gone in many bitter and destructive directions. It did not. This was largely the work of one man’s leadership, moral imagination and strategic genius. He turned his own deeply Christian belief that “unearned suffering is redemptive” into a creed of nonviolence that he carved into America’s political consciousness. The result was not just racial liberation but national redemption.
Such an achievement, such a life, deserves a monument alongside the other miracles of our history — Lincoln, Jefferson and FDR — which is precisely where stands the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. It opened Monday on the Tidal Basin, adjacent to Roosevelt’s seven acres, directly across from Jefferson’s temple, and bisecting the invisible cartographic line connecting the memorials for Jefferson and Lincoln, authors of America’s first two births of freedom, whose promises awaited fulfillment by King.
The new King memorial has its flaws, most notably its much-debated central element, the massive 30-foot stone carving of a standing, arms crossed, somewhat stern King. The criticism has centered on origins: The statue was made in China by a Chinese artist. The problem, however, is not ethnicity but sensibility. Lei Yixin, who receives a government stipend, has created 150 public monuments in the People’s Republic, including several of Chairman Mao. It shows. His flat, rigid, socialist realist King does not do justice to the supremely nuanced, creative, humane soul of its subject.
The artistic deficiencies, however, are trumped by placement. You enter the memorial through a narrow passageway, emerging onto a breathtaking opening to the Tidal Basin, a tranquil tree-lined oasis with Jefferson at the far shore. Here stands King gazing across to the Promised Land — promised by that very same Jefferson — but whose shores King himself was never to reach. You are standing at America’s Mount Nebo. You cannot but be deeply moved.
Behind the prophet, guarding him, is an arc of short quotations chiseled in granite. This is in keeping with that glorious feature of Washington’s monumental core — the homage to words (rather than images of conquest and glory, as in so many other capitals), as befits a nation founded on an idea.
The choice of King quotations is not without problems, however. There are 14 quotes, but in no discernible order, chronological or thematic. None are taken from the “I Have a Dream” speech for understandable reasons of pedagogical redundancy. Nevertheless, some of the quotes are simply undistinguished, capturing none of the cadence and poetry of King’s considerable canon.
More troubling, however, is the philosophical narrowness. The citations dwell almost exclusively on the universalist element of King’s thought — exhortations, for example, that “our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective,” and “every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole.”
Transcending all forms of sectarianism to achieve a common humanity was, of course, a major element of King’s thought. But it was not the only one. Missing is any sense of King’s Americanness. Indeed, the word America appears only once, and only in the context of stating his opposition to the Vietnam War. Yet as King himself insisted, his dream was “deeply rooted in the American dream.” He consciously rooted civil rights in the American story, not just for tactical reasons of enlisting whites in the struggle but because he deeply believed that his movement, while fiercely adversarial, was quintessentially American, indeed, a profound vindication of the American creed.
And yet, however much one wishes for a more balanced representation of King’s own creed, there is no denying the power of this memorial. You must experience it. In the heart of the nation’s capital, King now literally takes his place in the American pantheon, the only non-president to be so honored. As of Aug. 22, 2011, there is no room for anyone more on the shores of the Tidal Basin. This is as it should be.