Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Bad Day At Black Rock

I hate this.  You could put your time to better use if you read something else besides this post.  If you google , "Steve Jobs eulogy", a eulogy given by his sister the author Mona Simpson, you will be reading words filled with heart and soul.  We should all have a sister like that.

Since I'm not taking my own advice, I will try not to make this too much like a whining screed.  Several weeks ago I visited the new Martin Luther King Memorial, dedicated last month in Washington DC at a cost of 120 million dollars.  It was a clear day, bracing temperature, the sky blue with occasional white clouds wafting and providing enjoyment to the morning. The air was full of autumn; God did good.

I had a flawless 45 minute flight from RDU's new terminal to National Airport, a pleasant ride free of turbulence. I then boarded Washington's premier "Metro" rapid transit and exited at the Mall.  The Metro is a study in simplicity and accomplished architecture that has underground station stops of high design interest; filled with walls of  continuous concrete,  honeycombed patterns that on occasion make a rider feel they are in the last reel of a James Bond movie.  I must say though that in all my years I have never seen anyone actually talk to someone else during the ride, but that's a big city for you.

I exited the Metro and proceeded west toward the Tidal Basin and walk I did.  I knew the King Memorial was across from the Jefferson Memorial, but I could only see the continuous treeline that hugged the water.  "Keep going, you can't miss it, " was what everyone told me, but I almost walked past it and would have,  except for a very modest sign by the parkway.  There,  among the trees was a large block statute, about 2 1/2 stories tall, of Martin Luther King. The overall setting reminded me more of Joyce Kilmer than MLK.

The Memorial is an elegant and simple affair.  As you can see from the photo above, a large stone block protrudes from the middle of a stone mountain.  This is an allusion to a line from his "I Have a Dream Speech", but you wouldn't know that because the Memorial doesn't  provide the speech in any form.  The block is back grounded with one or two sentence quotations of mixed remembrance on a wall that resembles a breaking wave, curling away from the block in descending height: that's it. I'm sure the designers are sensitive about "disney-fying" the structure, but surely in this age of mult-media, Dr. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail and the "I Have a Dream" speech,  among others,  could be somehow displayed.   

There wasn't another park ranger tour for another 2 1/2 hours so I asked the nearby landscaping crew why it wasn't larger.  They laughed and said I was the only person to complain about the size - they all thought it was fine and that it appears larger at night with light shadows washing over the Dr. King's chiseled profile and the nearby trees. The crew was quite happy with the Memorial:  I was not - so you see my opinion on this may not be universal.

If you think of the great leader monuments at the Mall, the Washington Monument and the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, Dr. King should have had a place as grand and elevated as them - and he doesn't. If you consider their longevity on the country's main stage: 8 years of Washington to clear the path for political primogeniture, 10 or so years for Jefferson to imprint democracy's concepts through the Federalist Papers (with help from John Jay and James Madison) and the Declaration of Independence, and only 3 years of Lincoln, our greatest president, Dr. King was on that public stage from 1955 through 1968,  a full 13 years.  He was not just a leader of an ethnic group , not just an advocate of group civil rights, but  one who held up a mirror to the country and asked us to live up to what we can be,  live up to our words,  become America and everything that it embodies - we're better than this - he urged us on and made the country better. We inched closer to our true beliefs.

Dr. King held up that mirror to us for 13 years and he never put it down.  He held it with a firm grip, unwavering, confrontational even, but always with love, always with God.  Dr. King said that "any law that uplifts human personality is just.  Any law that degrades human personality is unjust."   That is why his Memorial should be just as grand in size and scope as the others,  that is why Dr. King's legacy is so important.  Calling him a leader of the "civil rights" movement seems limiting and rigid because he was more,  he was a leader of the country.

As I left to head back to the airport, I passed the WWII Memorial.  It too is hidden in the trees.  Apparently sight lines and landscaping concerns over rode our remembering the country's role in that War.  When  funds were being raised for the Memorial, I wondered how the designers could encapsulate the scope, the bravery, the horror, the gravitas , and the country's determination to win.  The answer was they didn't; I don't think they tried.  You could walk past the Memorial without noticing and I feel bad for someone who comes from any distance to see a circular sea of granite with engravings of battles on it.  It looks like a structure designed by a homeowners' association.

Currently  we don't live in an age of giants  so I guess it is not surprising we create memorials that are lacking.  Dr. King, Jefferson, Washington, and Lincoln put the nation's welfare above themselves, their wants and ideology.   Today our political leaders seem seek their own accommodation.  I'm enough of a realist to write that last sentence, but I also believe that others will come -   a future Lincoln or Washington.

Perhaps one of the young people who come to see Dr. King.

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