Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial’s Sculptor is Chinese: Does It Matter?

Mandel Ngan / Getty Images

The "Stone of Hope" sculpture of Martin Luther King by Chinese artist Lei Yixin is the first on the National Mall to honor a person of color.

D.C. is abuzz with activity with Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial dedication events, but there’s still plenty of debate over the memorial’s design and the nationality of the sculptor.

Some criticize that King’s face is too stern or militant. Others take issue with the selection of Lei Yixin of China, rather than an African American, as the sculptor. The project’s leaders have said there were no qualified black sculptors who could work with stones of this size or type. The Washington Post‘s Courtland Milloy writes, “Who gets the job? A Chinese national with an apparent preference for the heroic and authoritarian.” He continues:

Surely, having a black sculptor of a black civil rights icon — working on ground once toiled by black slaves, on the National Mall, designed and surveyed with the help of a black mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Banneker — would have added to the King memorial’s symbolic power.

So, yes, it stings when, centuries later, creators of the King memorial say they couldn’t find a qualified black sculptor.

We asked DCentric readers on Facebook and Twitter to post their thoughts and comments on the memorial’s design and sculptor. A few responded on Twitter by recalling King’s message of unity among races:

On our Facebook page, commenter Besufekad Tadesse writes the controversy around Lei designing the King memorial mirrors the initial criticism over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed by Maya Lin of Chinese descent.

The key is in whether or not the artist took proper care and respect of both the person being memorialized and the public that would enjoy the monument. As far as his stern face, the struggle to provide access to jobs and attain freedom amidst state-sponsored segregation and oppression was nothing short of a serious issue, and creating a strong look on Dr. King’s face would remind us all to be wise enough not to forget that.

But Ruth Peterson counters the controversy over the King sculptor differs from the one surrounding the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial since Lin is an American citizen, whereas Lei is a Chinese national. “He has done several sculptures of Chairman Ma,” Peterson writes, “So many people question why he was given the task to do King’s image when he had done so many images of a former Communist leader.” She continues:

As to the “stern” look on his face, I don’t see it. I think that maybe some people feel that unless a black man is smiling with his big pearly white teeth showing that he is somehow threatening to other people. To me, his figure says I’m a thoughtful, serious man working on serious problems for my people and my country.

Have you visited the memorial yet? What’s your take on King’s expression or the choice of Lei as the sculptor? Post your comments below.

  • DC Dan

    I don’t think Dr. King would have cared as he said. “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

  • Guest

    “The project’s leaders have said there were no qualified black sculptors who could work with stones of this size or type.”

    No qualified black sculptors?  Really?  And the ONLY designs for an MLK memorial deemed acceptable used “stones of this size or type”?

    Were there other designs?  Perhaps some that were less…obvious?

    The resultant design is embarrassing.

  • Guest

    Racism isn’t the issue here. The issue is that an American was not chosen to carve it. Even our American monuments are now being “made in China.”

  • Geoffrey Toyz’are’us Chang

    that sh*t doesn’t matter and it shouldn’t matter at all… i don’t see why it’s a big issue… 

  • Arthur

    The very reason this man fought so hard is for all you knuckleheads to stop asking the race of the hand that gives you a boost up and just get the heck off the ground.  This question does mor harm to his legacy than not having it built at all and makes as much sens as asking why isn’t the image in onyx or obsidian.  BTW, Does anyone know anything of the history of the stone cutters guild who they are and how many, and of what nationality, or race?  I imagine there arent too many artisans left in this country anymore, and they are becoming rarer globally. Please hold the whine and break bread with your brothers and sisters in celebration that Dr. king has finally been memorialized.  The first Black non-government figure on the National Mall.