Last week, during my morning cafeteria duty, an African-American boy told me that he had seen what resembled the profile of Martin Luther King Jr. in the morning cloud formation.
I asked this young man whether he had seen the Martin Luther King Jr. monument in Washington, D.C., or even a photo of it. He was unaware of its existence! As I described the allegorical sculpture, I felt goosebumps begin on my arms. Then I realized my description would pale in comparison to the actual thing.
Before he was dismissed to go to his classroom, I invited him into the Library to see a photo of the monument on my big computer screen.
I pulled up the National Park Service website dedicated to the monument, unveiled on August 28, 2011. My hope was to give him a more solid picture in his mind of a national hero that died tragically on April 4, 1968, when I was nine years old, and 38 years before the birth of my young student.
Titled “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” the magnificent sculpture features scrape marks defining the inside edges of each of the three pieces, signifying the effort and damage that occurred while this pastor and Civil Rights leader was pulling away from the firmly entrenched prejudices of the past.
While Martin Luther King, Jr. was no faultless savior, the monument does remind believers of the great hymn: Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me. It reminds us all that, in every generation, there are those called to move mountains of injustice to create the possibility of true liberty.
According to the National Park Service:
In 1996, Congress authorized Martin Luther King, Jr.’s fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, to establish a Memorial to him in Washington, D.C. The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation held a design competition and identified the Tidal Basin site for the memorial’s location.
In 2000, after studying the designs of 906 entries, “the judges selected ROMA Design Group’s plan for a stone with Dr. King’s image emerging from a mountain. The plan’s theme referenced a line from King’s 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, ‘With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.’ The final design includes a massive carved mountain with a slice pulled out of it.” (ibid.)
Master Sculptor Lee Yixin was chosen in 2007 to create the monument out of granite.
Sadly, the unveiling was marred by a reaction to the inscription carved into the Stone of Hope, depicting a stalwart Martin Luther King Jr., standing firm after stepping out of the mountain. “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness,” came from King’s own quote, spoken Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia on February 4, 1968: “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.” This quote was part of a sermon admonishing his audience to set aside their egos in order to lead other in lives of service.
After a minor uproar was created upon the pronouncement by poet Maya Angelou, declaring that the quote made King “look like an arrogant twit”, the sculptor was directed by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to erase the quote by adding textured striations.
In spite of this temporary controversy, The Stone of Hope stands as a magnificent metaphor for the life work of an imperfect man who stepped out in faith to move mountains.
And, as much as I would love to serve as an escort for a group of Intermediate students to visit this monument in Washington, D.C., I’m afraid I’d be the one to fall to the ground, sobbing with emotion, in response to the tribute.