MLK memorial debate proves symbols still matter

Symbolism matters. Although some of us would like to make the case as to why it shouldn’t as much, those efforts usually prove themselves futile. People always have and will forever need something to believe in — especially now.

Such revelations make it difficult for anyone to play the role of sourpuss in the weeklong celebration that began yesterday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. becoming the first African-American to have a memorial on the National Mall in Washington D.C. Of course, it’s not as if people haven’t tried, though, some of it admittedly reads as a little trivial.

Say, the idea that Dr. King’s posture in the statute is too “confrontational” or too “defiant.” Considering Dr. King is a man who spent nearly all of his adult life fighting against racial and economic inequality you would think such imagery might prove appropriate. Others think folded arms or not, Dr. King doesn’t exactly look like himself — or any black men they know.

[MSNBCMSN video=”″ w=”592″ h=”346″ launch_id=”44230535^40^221370″ id=”msnbca1b78″]

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

I read on a message board: “I think he looks very Asian in that rendering; kind of like a lean sumo wrestler in Brooks Brothers.” His children picked the image so evidently at least they see their daddy in the statute. Meanwhile, others are asking why a Chinese artist was chosen as the sculptor versus an African American one.

In 2007, Harry Johnson Sr., the chief executive of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Foundation, told the New York Times, “Lei [Yixin] was chosen to work on this not because of his political beliefs, not because of his ideology, but because he could do the work.”

It’s a good thing Yixin wasn’t chosen because of his political beliefs given they seem to suggest he has a rather oversimplified view of Dr. King’s stances. On his work, Yixin said through his son, who translated from Mandarin, “His dream is very universal. It’s a dream of equality. He went to jail. He had been beaten, and he sacrificed his life for his dream. And now his dream comes true.”

That skewed view offers room for more legitimate critiques of the memorial and symbolism in general.

One doesn’t have to be a historian to astutely conclude that a memorial costing $120 million (and organizers say they are still trying to raise the last $5 million) to honor a man who died while on the verge of mobilizing greater efforts to advocate economic quality is not King’s dream coming true.
It also doesn’t take a great leap of faith to suggest that Dr. King might be less than thrilled at the economic realities coexisting with his memorial finally opening after being authorized by Congress in 1996. These realities include the median wealth of white households being 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households. That troubling statistic is matched by the equally disturbing black unemployment rate, which soars above all other ethnic groups.

We must be certain that people like Yixin don’t perpetuate some false narrative that Dr. King’s dream has been realized beautiful statue standing on the National Mall notwithstanding.

The same can be said of yokels like Rick Perry who bastardize what political leaders such as King stood for in their own pursuit of power. While stumping in South Carolina, the latest GOP presidential flavor of the month feigned America’s progress on civil rights and stressed that now the nation “needs to be about freedom from overtaxation, freedom from over-litigation, freedom from over-regulation.”

It takes a special level of gall (called white privilege) to equate a struggle for racial equality to a bunch of soulless corporations and their pimped out’ politicians’ “struggle” for even more tax breaks and free passes to do whatever the hell they want – all at the expense of every else.

In his 1965 interview with Playboy magazine, Dr. King described America as “an extremely sick nation,” noting it could lead to his life ending early.

The racism that marred the country is certainly not what it used to be — the perfect premise for a joyous celebration this weekend. Still, people with Perry’s philosophy prove that America still largely suffers from illness, only now it’s largely greed.

In the same interview King explained its consequences: “Black and white, we will all be harmed unless something grand and imaginative is done.”

True then and even truer today. Let us pray the memorial dubbed the “stone of hope” will someday soon be met with the action the man it honors advocated.