Martin Luther King Memorial

MLK Memorial

(Photo credit: Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, courtesy PBS NewsHour, Flickr Creative Commons)

Maybe it’s because of my background as a seasonal park service employee, but in recent years whenever I’ve seen photos or newsreel footage of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, I’ve taken a moment to wonder about the identities of the park rangers standing just to King’s left. It looks like there were at least two uniformed park employees on duty near King when he gave that speech. Standing in front of King but at a lower level was an African-American ranger wearing sunglasses. However, because of his position relative to where the photographers and film-makers were situated, he didn’t make it into nearly as many shots of the scene as the other ranger on duty: a tall, lanky white man standing with arms folded. He’s in almost every shot of King taken during his speech. He’s clean-cut and quite good-looking in a Dudley Do-Right sort of way. He stands out in the scene because he’s tall, he’s pretty much the only white guy in the scene, and he’s in a park service uniform (including the ranger Stetson). His face seems largely expressionless, save perhaps the faintest hint of a friendly smile. He looks like he’s there to help. He looks like a nice guy.

Because he’s standing alongside America’s most famous and recognizable civil rights leader at his most famous moment in history, I’d bet that ranger’s face has been seen by almost everyone in the United States and countless millions more people around the world. I must’ve seen that scene a thousand times. Yet I’ve never been able to figure out just who that man is. From time to time I’ve searched through books and online documents, and Googled different word combinations, all to no avail. On one of my visits to the capital I even asked a supervisory ranger on duty, but he had no idea. It’s a continuing mystery.

This might seem a slightly obtuse introduction to talking about the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, but it’s one that works for me because that ranger helped take me deeper into the life and times of King. When I was first learning about my adopted country, what I knew about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King essentially boiled down to that one speech—or, to be even more precise, the one short section at the end of that speech—delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the day of the 1963 March on Washington. I didn’t think that much more about King, beyond knowing he was heavily involved in civil rights and he was assassinated a few years later, in April 1968.

At the same time, when I watched the speech on TV in my early days here I didn’t focus much attention on the ranger either. In fact, at first I didn’t even realize he was a park ranger. I figured he was a cop or something. It wasn’t till I started thinking about working for the park service myself that it dawned on me that the tall guy in the Smokey Bear hat was one of those park service guys. If I’d seen that same figure in a natural park setting such as Yellowstone or Yosemite, I’d have twigged the park service connection much earlier—after all, I’d loved watching all those documentaries about the national parks when I was a kid in Scotland. But in the urban, man-made environment around the Lincoln Memorial, I was a lot slower in making the park service connection. I do think this is a common issue with people—especially from abroad, but also in the States—who don’t always clearly understand the National Park Service’s role in urban historical-cultural settings.

As I became more interested in the back-story of this ranger, I couldn’t help but wonder what he was thinking when he was standing there on that late-summer day in Washington, DC. Did he have any clue that what he was witnessing first-hand would become one of the seminal moments in American history? How aware was he about what was going on? I also sometimes like to imagine myself at key moments in history, witnessing earth-changing events at first hand. So inevitably I ended up idly pondering what I would have been thinking in this scene—if that had been me there on duty at that spot, standing feet away from a man who was the center of attention for hundreds of thousand of marchers and millions more on TV. That spurred me to read more about the life and times of the main attraction that day, Dr. King. It’s funny to consider the convoluted routes we take when we seek to learn new things.

The reason the park rangers were there that day is because the Lincoln Memorial, like most of the capital’s national monuments, is cared for by the National Park Service on behalf of the American people. It’s the same today. In fact, the complement of Washington, DC monuments run by the park service has grown considerably in the half century-plus since that speech, and their number now includes an impressive memorial to the man who gave that speech. Since 2011, Martin Luther King, Jr. has joined the great and the good honored by the nation with a monument in the National Mall area, situated at the north end of the Tidal Basin and not far from the Lincoln Memorial site of the speech.

The four-acre site really is impressive—as it should be, since it cost $120 million to complete. It includes a crescent-shaped wall with 14 excerpts from King’s speeches and sermons that runs 150 yards—one and a half football fields—in length. But the centerpiece of the memorial is a sculpture of King himself, and it is massive. It takes the form of a 30-foot high sculpture in relief carved into a solid block of granite so dense and heavy that support piles had to be driven 50 feet into the earth below. This block of granite is called the Stone of Hope; it’s a reference to another (less famous) line from King’s August 28 speech, carved into its side: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”

Behind the sculpture, toward the entrance, are two more pieces of granite that look as if a mountain has been split in two and the two sides separated to make an entryway. These represent the Mountain of Despair, from the same quote, which visitors must pass through to reach King’s Stone of Hope. They then must walk around the granite block to the front to see King, arms folded, looking out across the Tidal Basin in the direction of the Jefferson Memorial. It’s interesting to have the slave owner and the descendant of slaves in such close proximity to each other.

Like most new memorials these days, this one has had the odd whiff of controversy. The funds for the memorial had to be raised privately, and the King family demanded hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees for the use of King’s words and image at the site. Eyebrows were raised when the sculptor chosen to depict this great black American civil rights leader was neither black nor American. His name is Lei Yixin, and he’s Chinese.

The biggest controversy came over the seemingly straightforward matter of quote selection. Perhaps controversy is the wrong word; SNAFU might be more appropriate. The problem emerged over the quote that initially graced (if that’s the word) the opposite face of King’s statue from the “Out of the mountain of despair” quote. This other inscription said, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” It was rightly pointed out, by Maya Angelou and others, that this was a paraphrasing and misrepresentation of a quote from a sermon King delivered shortly before his assassination in 1968.

In the words of one opinion writer in the Washington Post, the quote made “King look like something he was not: an arrogant jerk.” What King had actually said at the time was “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.” Leaving out the “if” clause and condensing the rest of the quote completely changes its tone. Plus it’s bad form to paraphrase a person’s words and then present them as if they were his exact words—especially on a monument celebrating that person. The offending quote was removed in the summer of 2013, in time for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Apart from that, the memorial seems to have been generally well received, and further cements King’s position in the pantheon of Great Americans Who Never Made it to President. In fact, King’s memorial is one of only four in and around the Mall that do not commemorate a president of the United States. Just for the record, the others are founding father George Mason, Scottish-born U.S. naval hero John Paul Jones, and Swedish-born inventor and boat designer John Ericsson. (Interesting that two of them were born overseas.)

I like the memorial. Just like the film image of the park ranger whose identity I know nothing of, it has made me want to learn more about King the man. I just wish I could find out a bit more about that park ranger along the way.

Sources:

Rachel Manteuffel (2011). Martin Luther King a drum major? If you say so. Washington Post, August 25. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/martin-luther-king-a-drum-major-if-you-say-so/2011/08/25/gIQAmmUkeJ_story.html

Edward Rothstein (2011). A moment of greatness, blurred. New York Times, August 25. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/26/arts/design/martin-luther-king-jr-national-memorial-opens-in-washington.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Michael E. Ruane (2013). “Drum major” inscription being removed from MLK memorial. Washington Post, July 30. Available at http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-07-30/local/40893426_1_inscription-lei-yixin-king-s

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