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The Stone of Hope: Stately and Serene? Or Angry Giant?

Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial
Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D. C.

Every year on the third Monday of January, America celebrates the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with public remembrances, a Day of Service, and perhaps a visit to the official Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, on the National Mall in Washington, D. C. overlooking the famous cherry blossoms.

Photo: George Tames/New York Times
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On January 20, 2020, a profoundly divided nation rallied to mark the 25th anniversary of the Day of Service, and a full twenty years since the commission of the imposing memorial to the great civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Covering four acres at the heart of the nation's capital, the memorial is deeply symbolic in each of its details. Its “Stone of Hope” monument, named for a line in King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, towers a colossal thirty feet above the Tidal Basin, and, for all its stirring power, is no stranger to controversy.

The face of the monument, itself a massive forty-six tons of shrimp-pink granite, has drawn special reproach from a variety of constituencies.

Critics have complained the face is too steely, squinty, Chinese; too stern, or lacking the “soft eyes” and “open face that conveys the blessed assurance of a man who walks by faith.”

Chinese master sculptor Lei Yixin
Sculptor Lei at work on Stone of Hope

Charles Krauthammer, wrote that this “flat, rigid, socialist realist King does not do justice to the supremely nuanced, creative, humane soul of its subject.” Many agreed that the statue was, in fact “stone-faced,” as in the dictionary definition, “expressionless.”

Fifty-three-year-old Chinese master sculptor Lei Yixin was selected to design and carve the Stone of Hope, in a blind international design competition, finalized by a mostly African American design team.

Lei's task would be to capture a giant of history, who was also an ordinary man.

Bob Fitch/Courtesy Ed Jackson
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at his desk in 1966

Through years of research Lei covered the walls of his studio with photographs and listened to hundreds of hours of Dr. King’s speeches, in an effort to understand how best to “freeze” the essence of a mobile, living face.

Sculptor Lei heard repeated requests to soften, soften, soften the expression in his likeness of Dr. King; repeatedly Lei acquiesced. Finally, working from a famous photograph of Dr. King standing at his desk, Lei won the approval of King's children, each of whom chose this fourth and final version as looking most like their father.

But how did he REALLY look?

New York Times critic Edward Rothstein complained of “a built-in grandiosity that exaggerates the physical and spiritual statures of [its] human subject," conceding nevertheless, "that is one of the purposes of turning flesh into imposing stone. . .”

Ultimately, the quest for a single facial expression to capture the whole of the human presence is doomed from the outset, and is the bane of the monumentalist’s mission (think of Mount Rushmore). For the face, any face, is recognized by the way it moves—and it is always in motion.

Specific facial expressions and “microexpressions” occur in direct response to tiny contractions in the muscles in the face. Psychologists and researchers in the behavioral sciences have catalogued literally hundreds of facial behaviors in categories based on the muscles that produce them, and correlating to brain activity linked to human emotion.

And Dr. King's face was supremely expressive—multifaceted, passionate, often joyous. Most viewers will likely find, with Krauthammer, that in spite of all the controversy, “you cannot but be deeply moved... There is no denying the power of this memorial. You must experience it.”


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