Rev. King, in Word and in Stone

Article excerpt

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.

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.

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. …