Two sets of arms crossing, holding each other in a warm embrace: what could be so controversial about that? Well, as it turned out, a whole lot.
When Hank Willis Thomas unveiled his new Boston monument to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, an oversized statue called The Embrace featuring just that as its subject, the internet was set afire. Almost immediately after its unveiling, the work spawned many memes in which social media users compared the statue to various sex acts.
It’s a fate that has befallen few other public monuments to civil rights leaders. But the ordeal is not even the worst one to face a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., who’s the subject of various monuments across the U.S.
The kerfuffle surrounding the Thomas work pales in comparison to the one that followed a statue of King by Lei Yixin. Lei’s work, Stone of Hope, appears in Washington, D.C., and even before its completion in 2011, the 30-foot-tall monument had provoked a bitter outcry, with detractors claiming that Lei was the wrong person for the job, that the mode he’d chosen to portray King was poorly chosen, and that the means by which Lei was to create the piece were problematic. And, once the work finally did go on view, the furor did not die down either.
Lei, who comes from Changsha, China, had been picked to do the commission in 2006 by a panel that included Ed Dwight, a Black sculptor responsible for several King monuments, including one at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Yet critics quickly began to argue that a Chinese artist who had no connections to the U.S. or to the Black community there was not a good one for a King monument, and even Dwight started to think he made a big mistake. Dwight told the New York Times that when Lei presented a maquette of the work, he was disturbed that King looked little like a Black man.
“Dr. King never stood like that, nor wore clothes like that, nor did he look like that. It is a shameful tragedy,” Dwight told NPR. “Even a Chinese critic said the design looked like a very big Chinese black man.”
Dwight and other African American artists had submitted proposals, but the foundation that was mounting the work said that none were right for the King memorial. They chose Lei for his artistic ability, they said, not because of his politics. But it was Lei’s politics that became a sticking point.
When Lei was given the King memorial project, Ariana Eunjung Cha reported in the Washington Post that his selection had been greeted within China as a “triumphant moment” for the country’s art scene abroad. The problem, Cha wrote, was what Lei had sculpted within China: more than 150 monuments in the state-approved social realist style, including ones depicting Mao Zedong.
Lei seemed unflappable, telling Cha that King “has always dreamed that people from all over the world will not be judged by the color of their skin—that we would all be brothers and sisters and enjoy equal opportunity. Now I have the luck to get this opportunity.” And the foundation spearheading the memorial backed up Lei, with its leader, Harry Johnson, telling NPR that Lei had been imprisoned himself and even persecuted in China.
Lei planned to sculpt the work from giant blocks of granite from China, from which King would appear to stoically emerge. Pegged at a cost of $100 million that would later balloon to $110 million, the statue would tower over viewers, who would be able to read quotations from King’s writings that were carved into its stone. King’s legs would appear to dissolve behind an outcropping in the white granite. Its name was a reference to a quotation from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
The statue was, in other words, another socialist realist monument, and its style left some in Washington, D.C. uneasy. The United States Commission of Fine Arts wrote in a letter that “the colossal scale and Social Realist style of the proposed sculpture recalls a genre of political sculpture that has recently been pulled down in other countries.” A headline about the letter in the Taipei Times read: “More MLK, hold the Mao.” (In that story, Lei said that Mao had “made some mistakes,” but “isn’t as bad as some people think.”) One month after the letter, a tweaked design was approved.
Despite widespread objection, Lei forged onward, relying on Chinese labor to produce a work that would ultimately be sited in the U.S. According to the Washington Post, Chinese workers were hosted in Virginia to create the work. They reportedly received no pay (though they expected to when they returned to China), and they were not unionized U.S. labor, which is atypical for a monument of this kind. Roger Simon, writing in Politico, said that using unpaid workers “would seem to me to violate not only Dr. King’s principles but also U.S. anti-slavery laws.”
Following a short delay resulting from a hurricane, the statue was ultimately unveiled in 2011. Barack Obama, then the President of the U.S., was present to give a speech, and singer Aretha Franklin and poet Nikki Giovanni were there too.
The reviews in mainstream publications were generally scathing. Washington Post critic Phillip Kennicott did not mince words when he wrote, “The memorial could be vastly improved simply by removing the statue.” Edward Rothstein wrote in the New York Times, speaking of the work’s title, “The metaphor is not one of Dr. King’s best, anyway, but to center an entire memorial on it, and then to do so in a way that makes no real sense, is baffling.” In the Atlantic, Michael J. Crosbie wrote, “It’s a one-liner, sort of a ‘great man’ statue you’d see in Beijing—so alien to the fully human being that King was. Getting turned into stone can be deadly.”
The controversy did not end there, however. Almost as soon as it was finished, the sculpture provoked further ire with a phrase chiseled into its side.
That phrase read: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” In fact, it was a truncated form of a quotation from a 1968 sermon led by King: “Yes, 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.”
The shortened sentence was viewed by many as something worse than an inaccuracy: a total misunderstanding of King’s words. The poet Maya Angelou said that the version of the quote on the Lei sculpture made King sound like “an arrogant twit” and added her voice to the growing chorus calling for the phrase’s removal. Asked why Lei had opted for an abbreviated version of King’s words, a spokesperson for the National Mall and Memorial Parks said he thought it would look better.
Within a year of the sculpture’s unveiling, officials involved approved a plan to get rid of the phrase, and in 2013, it was officially struck from the work. By that point, millions of people had seen the work, and millions of dollars had been spent on it. Lei stuck by his creation.
“He feels that it was an honor to work with the M.L.K. Foundation to make the memorial,” Shi Ke, Lei’s son, said at a press conference when the phrase was taken away. “He has put a lot of effort and heart into the statue. He thinks that Americans would not regret to pick him as the sculptor.”