MLK memorial crushes the poetry – and meaning – of Martin Luther King Jr.

The MLK memorial is a poem poorly translated. Why paraphrase? Across the mall, every word of Lincoln’s second inaugural address is carved in stone without an ellipsis to mar its poetry.

I approached the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington with a set of expectations.

This would be a monument to the power of words as much as it would be a memorial to a man. I wanted poetry made dimensional. I wanted the cadences and rhythms of his voice to resonate through stone or water or light. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

This is not just one of the most famous speeches in American history, in many ways it’s our national anthem. It’s the Langston Hughes poem, “I, too, Sing America,” updated. It’s the song of a generation.

I don’t remember exactly where I was when I heard the news that Dr. King was shot. But I remember the faces of my parents. The sadness would come later – these were faces twisted in anger. And I, just 10 years old, was afraid that every leader in our country who made sense was going to end up shot. I was a child of the sixties.

The MLK memorial is a poem poorly translated, which may have something to do with the fact that it was designed by a sculptor in China. The monument features two ideas in writing, both paraphrases of quotes from King. One reads: “I was a drum major for peace, justice and righteousness.” Poet Maya Angelou says the paraphrase makes King “look like an arrogant twit.”

The full quote is from a sermon in 1968, in which King is actually preaching against the lead-the-parade instinct of self-importance and superiority. He says, “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.”

Why the need to edit? Across the mall, every word of Lincoln’s second inaugural address is carved in stone without so much as an ellipsis to mar its poetry.

But it’s the second line that really misses the mark in my opinion. It comes from the Dream speech and includes the only words in the entire monument from that speech. The paraphrase reads: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” The words are etched into the base of a 28-foot tall likeness of King, that has literally been hewed out of a much larger rock meant to represent the mountain of despair. We are left to believe that King is the stone of hope.

The full quote: “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” Clearly King thought that faith – not he – was the instrument of hope. King certainly wasn’t without ego, but what he stood for was the power of love and faith, exercised by the masses, to bend the arc of justice. He brought communities of people together. In fact, you could argue that he was the last leader who actually asked people (other than soldiers) to make meaningful sacrifices.

When you spend time in Washington, you realize that Americans are a monument-building people. To capture the essence of a human being in stone is a flawed enterprise. To make poetry jump out of fountains or from a narrative carved in granite is next to impossible.

It is certainly fitting that we have a monument, even one so flawed, to the man who reminded an entire nation that the words of Jefferson and Lincoln must carry the full faith and credit of the United States. Otherwise, we are bankrupt. He reminded us that we are a nation whose deeds have their genesis in ideals and words – often beautifully articulated.

And so I wanted to hear King speak when I visited the monument. I hoped for a thousand sets of headphones that loop his speeches into eternity. If I am lucky enough to have grandchildren, I will bring them here to this beautiful spot, having loaded each of their iPods with the “I Have a Dream” speech. And I will let Martin Luther King speak for himself, unedited.

Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising.

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