John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Say what you will about the new MLK memorial in Washington. At least it doesn't look like some random guy named Hazel.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a great man. But he certainly hasn't inspired great public art.
That dismal fact was driven home last week when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered the National Park Service to redo part of its new MLK memorial in Washington, D.C. The problem: The words on the statue, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness," never actually came out of the civil-rights leader's mouth; they were a lame paraphrase of a more complex statement. The fixing of King's quote will pacify one faction in the memorial's screaming horde of critics. Still awaiting adjustment, presumably, are the stone man's stern, almost constipated facial expression and the unpaid wages of the Chinese workers who helped sculptor Lei Yixin build the thing.
A glance around the nation's parks and plazas, however, reveals that Washington cannot claim a monopoly on the Awkward MLK Statue phenom. Check out this visage of the good doctor in Omaha, Neb.: You could hide a golf ball in the yawning cleft on that chin. (The actual crease on King's jaw was more subtle.) And whoever fabricated the MLK statue in Albany, N.Y., must have forged the limbs separately and then attempted to fuse them together, because the Nobel-Prize-winning pastor is stuck with an oversized, neckless head that could've fallen off of a Pep Boys sculpture. The viewer is left wondering: Does it bobble?
But in terms of sheer what-on-earth-ness, no King statue can hold a torch to the one drawing double takes in Marshall Park in Charlotte, N.C. It is officially the "World's Worst Martin Luther King Statue," according to journalist Jerry Bledsoe's 1984 book, North Carolina Curiosities.
Take a gander. Who is that fellow, and what is he doing? Although King actually did make an unconventional hand gesture during his "I Have a Dream" speech, here he looks like Darth Vader getting ready to force-choke a fool. With that tensed knee and up-stretched hand, King could also be one of the martial artists in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, seconds away from soaring into the air and executing a flurry of chops and kicks. For a celebrated pacifist, these thoughts are alarming.
For a less-violent but equally strange image, look at the stairway that King is ascending. It ends abruptly on the next step, which, given the way he is groping around with that hand like somebody in the dark seeking a light switch, suggests that this esteemed fighter for justice is about to walk into a culvert. Surely this is not the scenario envisioned by Harlem Renaissance artist Selma Burke (originator of the Franklin Roosevelt face on the U.S. dime) when she crafted the piece in 1980.
John Grooms has noted the peculiarities of the sculpture in a couple of posts over at Creative Loafing Charlotte's Clog Blog. To him, it looks as if King is "holding his hand out to check for rain." And as for the statue's face, it sure looks familiar, says Grooms, but not in the way it's supposed to:
The MLK statue, and I’m trying to be kind here, sort of looks like Martin Luther King, but not really. Strangely enough, the statue is a dead ringer for a guy I grew up with named Hazel Willis. Hazel was a smart guy, and an African American, but that’s about as far as the similarities with MLK Jr. go.
Photo by Flickr user michaelhyman300.