Paul Greenberg

Martin Luther King Jr., now has his Washington memorial just where it should be: on the National Mall.

But that's about all that's good about it. Because everything else about it raises misgivings. The deepest misgivings.

To judge by the photographs, any resemblance between this monolith and Martin Luther King is purely coincidental. It fails even to hint, let alone capture, the essence of the man -- his Southern, his American, his Christian core.

The arms of the figure are folded, its pose unnatural, its features severe, with its closed lips, its eyes deadened. Most unconvincing of all are those arms folded across the chest, instead of outstretched as if to save. Everything about the great image seems strained, nothing about it natural. It is not at all like the black Southern Baptist preacher we remember -- imploring, loving, prophetic, calling for the justice, justice that thou shalt pursue.

What a contrast with Daniel Chester French's enduring Lincoln in that president's Memorial -- so sorrowful, so feeling, so compassionate, so sad-eyed, so wise. Made wise by suffering. For unearned suffering, said Martin Luther King Jr., is redemptive.

You can see the truth of that assertion, that belief, that truth in the furrowed features of French's Lincoln, who never so looked the part of Father Abraham. It would not surprise if those stone eyes were to weep for his country, dismembered before those eyes, reunited in a terrible war and a new birth of freedom.

Sorrowful as that Lincoln is, it elevates. Like true tragedy. But the new King Memorial depresses. As a failure to understand always does. This monument does not have the feel of tragedy but of travesty. It does neither Martin Luther King Jr. nor the history he made justice. It fails to capture the man who carved a stone of hope out of the mountain of despair. There is nothing here of the living man whose words illuminated the American Dream for his generation and, God willing, many more.

Maybe what makes this stone-faced figure so wrong, so monumentally wrong, are those folded arms. As if this prophet were resisting change rather than urging it. This pharaonic image (30 feet high) looks down at the multitudes rather than speaking to us one-to-one as Dr. King did, "black and white together," in the words of the old civil-rights anthem.

This towering figure emerges from the stone silent, its jaws clenched, its mouth sealed rather than full of praise for the Lord. The people walking by are dwarfed, not raised. It is hard to imagine Dr. King's unceasing biblical allusions issuing forth from this great graven image --


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.