The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial will be formally dedicated this Sunday in Washington, D.C. President Barack Obama will be on hand, as will a cadre of politicos, celebrities, and luminaries of the civil rights movement. The controversy surrounding the memorial, however, may dampen the occasion.
The complaints vary in substance and kind. There's the grumbling about the appearance of one less-than accurate quotation attributed to King, as well as some unflattering headlines revealing payments of more than $750,000 to King’s estate for the use of his words and likeness.
More significantly, some representatives of organized labor have condemned the memorial’s Chinese artisans and their use of white Chinese granite. It’s apparently galling that the memorial stones were imported and that certain masonry jobs weren’t reserved for American workers. Scott Garvin, a regional executive of the International Union of Bricklayers & Allied Craftworkers, told The Washington Post that the use of foreign labor was “a thumb in the eye.”
Meanwhile, Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page complained that the memorial "side stepped direct mention of race." The Washington Post’s Courtland Milloy expressed his own disappointment that the memorial's sculptor wasn't black. According to Milloy, the selection of a black sculptor would have honored the slaves once forced to work nearby.
The problem is that these complaints demand forms of nativist or racialist symbolism that would directly contradict King’s admonishment that we value personal merit rather than color or creed.
So it’s fitting that the memorial’s sole quotation directly referencing race contextualizes the subject within King's broader project. "If we are to have peace on earth,” the memorial reads, “our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalty must transcend our race, our tribe, our class and our nation, and this means we must develop a world perspective."
In the minds of too many Americans, King is primarily a “black” leader and the civil rights movement he has come to embody is principally the endowment of black Americans. But that view inappropriately qualifies the man and the movement. King wasn't narrowly interested in race; he was broadly committed to justice.
Think about the distinct cadence of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. You can imagine its message resounding in nearly every corner of the planet. It’s even possible to see the use of foreign labor and materials at the King memorial as a testament to the universality of King’s message. Setting aside some portion of the work based solely on the color of the worker’s skin would have betrayed something sacred.
The memorial highlights King's broad passion for justice in other contexts as well. Consider this inscription: "I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against it not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and above all with a passionate desired to see our beloved country stand as a moral example to the world."
King’s steadfast opposition to the conflict in Vietnam put him at odds with both President John F. Kennedy and much of the civil rights establishment, who believed his position jeopardized the movement. King responded characteristically in a 1968 speech:
Cowardice asks the question, "Is it safe?" Expediency asks the question, "Is it politic?" Vanity asks the question, "Is it popular?" But, conscience asks the question, "Is it right?" And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one's conscience tells one that it is right.
King's pursuit of justice wasn't without shortcomings, of course. He possessed a deep skepticism of markets and championed progressive poverty remedies like the so-called living wage. More generally, his conception of "social justice" conflated unassailably moral aims like the repeal of Jim Crow with redistributive measures that promote equality of outcome at the expense of equality under the law.
The King memorial doesn’t add anything to the debate over these contentious aspects of his legacy, but that would be asking too much. Civic shrines deal exclusively in exaltation. They omit the nuance that allows students of history to draw their own conclusions.
If this memorial succeeds in exciting the imagination and encouraging further investigation, it will serve an admirable purpose. Within the limitations of politics and stone, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial promotes King's universal commitment to justice without restricting itself to color in black and white.
Kmele Foster is the co-founder and vice president of TelcoIQ, a telecommunications consultancy. He is also the chairman of America's Future Foundation.