At the MLK Memorial Soft Opening

After an earthquake it was almost a letdown – the first major memorial in Washington D.C. in years, a $120 million effort, one that has been the works for decades.

And yet I couldn’t help but thinking that the Martin Luther King Jr. Monument got a short shrift somehow. It’s in an odd location, off to the side of the underwhelming WWII memorial. And it’s sort of hard to find. The official opening isn’t until Sunday, but none of the signs nearby are updated for those who may want to step inside for what is the “soft opening” of the monument since Monday (somebody took to a sign themselves with a Sharpie as if to help others find it).

All you can see from the street entrance are these big mounds of what are supposed to be mountains carved from rock that inevitably look like the fake mountain rock of the Matterhorn at Disney World. Or Superman’s Fortress of Solitude: Fake, overly majestic, with only a stylized representation of a mountain, it almost looked like one of those rocks from the Prudential.

You walk through these two rocks (which do in fact have a Superman name), the Mountain of Despair), and come around to face the giant MLK standing and emerging from a third huge slab of granite.

It’s supposed to have been inspired by a quote from the “I Have a Dream” speech he delivered on the National Mall 48 years ago this Sunday – the day of the official dedication of the monument. That quote is “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” Great image, got it, from the big dark hopelessness, a tiny flicker of possibility. But this isn’t a stone from a mountain; it’s a third mountain from out of two others.

This MLK stands tall – really tall: 28 feet, 6 inches, while Thomas Jefferson, across the Tidal Bay is a modest 20 feet, as is the Lincoln sitting in his memorial (though if the Lincoln could stand, it’d be 28 feet tall, settling all those Who is Taller arguments set to come).

It’s a King whose expression can’t quite be nailed down: With his arms crossed and clutching a paper, is he defiant? Hopeful? Proud? A bit annoyed? Is he housetraining a dog?

It doesn’t quite look exactly like him either. Knowing it was fashioned by Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin lent a little Buddha to the aura; his previous best known sculpture had been of Mao.

One guy locally has compared it to Hans Solo frozen in carbonite in “The Empire Strikes Back.” But then he’d be black and this MLK is, confoundingly, white (anything darker and you’d be unable to see him at night, it has been explained).

Undoubtedly, it’s great that a person of color finally gets a monument on the Washington Mall (or very near it). And that this King is commanding and undeniable.

But as with the Vietnam Memorial, the real strength comes from the wall, where 14 if his strongest quotes from speeches and sermons and writings are etched in granite for maximum inspiration. Though it doesn’t include the “I have a dream” line, King’s words raise the memorial above any petty quibbles, pop culture triggers or minor complaints such as these. An earthquake couldn’t topple it.

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