By Margot Minardi
The new Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, DC, attracted criticism from an unlikely corner recently when poet Maya Angelou complained that one of the inscriptions made the civil rights leader seem like an “arrogant twit.” In a sermon on “The Drum Major Instinct,” delivered two months before his assassination in 1968, King asked to be remembered for his principles rather than glorified with a long funeral: “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.” The adaptation of this passage on the statue removes the conditional clause and has King touting himself: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” Responding to Angelou and other critics, one of the monument’s designers explained that the longer quotation simply wouldn’t fit.
Designing monuments is a tricky business. In the nineteenth century, the builders of the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston struggled to translate a world-transforming moment into granite. Though the Bunker Hill Monument commemorated an event—a Revolutionary battle fought on June 17, 1775—rather than a person, the Boston monument shares with the King Memorial a mixed tone of celebration and mourning. King’s memorial incorporates a “mountain of despair” and a “stone of hope,” recognizing both the obstacles that civil rights activists have had to overcome and the inspiration that King continues to provide. The Battle of Bunker Hill was a military defeat but a moral victory; consequently, the monument is a 220-foot obelisk, a symbol used since ancient times to commemorate the dead, though in the nineteenth century its grounds hosted festive celebrations of patriotic pride.
The members of the Bunker Hill Monument Association took 25 years to figure out what to inscribe on their monument; in the end, they decided not to put any words on the obelisk at all. Americans today might find this choice a strange one. The iconic war memorial of our time—the wall honoring the dead and missing in Vietnam—is an achingly long stream of names. But in 1848, five years after the monument’s dedication, the Bunker Hill Monument Association voted “that the great object for which the obelisk was erected on Bunker Hill is monumental, and not historical, and that it is not expedient that any record of names, dates, or events connected with the battle should be inscribed on it.”
As this quotation suggests, the “monumental” and the “historical” are two different ways of bringing the past into the present. The monumental seeks to unify, while the historical often threatens to divide. Monuments aim to fix a certain interpretation of the past—and thus a certain present identity—in the minds of all visitors. In dedicating the Bunker Hill Monument, statesman Daniel Webster heralded the obelisk as a generative symbol of American patriotism: “It is a plain shaft. It bears no inscriptions…. It looks, it speaks, it acts, to the full comprehension of every American mind, and to the awakening of glowing enthusiasm in every American heart.” The monument’s extreme verticality unified people by directing their gaze to a single point high above the city skyline and removing their attention from the mundane and messy politics of life on the ground.
“Historical” approaches to the past, by contrast, fixate on the ground. Names, dates, and details matter profoundly, and contradictions and controversies abound. When the Bunker Hill Monument was dedicated in 1843, after eighteen long years of construction, the most troublesome contradictions and controversies in American life centered around slavery. Boston’s abolitionists reviled the monument and the festivities that surrounded it. That the obelisk elevated people’s gaze was precisely the problem: it deflected attention from the runaways from Southern slavery searching for refuge in the monument’s shadow. For the abolitionists, extending sympathy and support to these living, breathing human beings, not erecting giant stone towers, was the way to sustain the spirit of the American Revolution. One abolitionist excoriated Webster’s dedicatory address for ignoring the contemporary debate on slavery. “Another struggle, mightier than of old, for the emancipation of three millions of people from servile chains, is going on in the land,” this critic wrote. “It is a struggle to secure to all the full enjoyment of those rights, which the patriots of 1776 fought and bled in vain to establish.”
The tension between the monumental and the historical that fueled abolitionist criticism of the Bunker Hill Monument also underlies some of the criticism directed at the King Memorial. Monument-building has long been the prerogative of the powerful. But how do you design a monument to a man who spoke truth to power? To be sure, conventions of memorial architecture have changed since the nineteenth century. Modern designers have developed an architectural vocabulary for memorializing controversial or shameful aspects of history. The preeminent example again is Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which was initially criticized for violating traditional ideas of what a monument should do. It stayed close to the ground, named names, and did not incorporate overt symbols of patriotism.
The King Memorial, too, subverts monumentalism with its Inscription Wall of fourteen quotations. As the memorial’s website explains, “The quotes are not placed chronologically, allowing any visitor to begin reading [from] any location within the memorial, not requiring them to follow a defined path.” (Contrast the Bunker Hill Monument’s single staircase, which rigidly channels visitors’ movement.) Some of the inscriptions criticize the Vietnam War or call for transcendence of national loyalties. By offering numerous pathways, and by incorporating quotations that challenge the homogenizing patriotism of monumental culture, the inscription wall demands something of its visitors beyond unreflective adulation.
Yet the statue of King at the center of the memorial complex provokes a different response. A critic for the New York Times deplored its cross-armed pose as “monumental, not human.” The statue is 30 feet tall—which gives King more than ten feet on Abraham Lincoln at his own nearby memorial. “We don’t even see his feet,” the Times critic laments of the statue of a man known for marching. These complaints, like the criticism of the “drum major” inscription, reflect a desire to honor the civil rights leader as someone who spoke to and marched among ordinary people, not as a King elevated above us. “We need all of you,” King implored a Memphis audience on the last night of his life, in what would have perhaps been an apt (and anti-monumental) inscription.
“Build the Dream,” proclaims the King Memorial’s website, where visitors can contribute money to the memorial’s construction. Part of me celebrates the memorial’s opening as an indication of how monumental culture has changed. But I also hope that the memorial continues to provoke criticism and reflection. We need to visit the King Memorial with an awareness of its—and any monument’s—limitations. We need to remember that, fundraising slogans aside, King’s dream was not one that could be realized with a chisel and a block of stone.
Margot Minardi is Assistant Professor of History and Humanities at Reed College and author of Making Slavery History: Abolitionism and the Politics of Memory in Massachusetts.