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Published: Sunday, 5/18/2008

True measure of MLK

TWO years after its ground-breaking on the northwest shore of the Tidal Basin in Washington, the four-acre, $100 million Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial has hit a major snag.

The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, the federal agency that advises the government on memorials and the use of public space, objects to the way the project has evolved since it was originally approved. It insists that the project stick closer to the original design.

The design that had been pitched to the commission was of a contemplative, peaceful civil rights leader emerging organically from a rock.

But sculptor Lei Yixin, the Chinese national who beat out American artists for the honor of designing the sculpture, has molded his version of Dr. King in the Social Realist-style that was popular in China during the Cultural Revolution.

The artist's vision for the project has drifted dramatically from the original proposal. The new design has more in common with statues of Mao Zedong than a man of peace and reconciliation. Critics say it makes Dr. King look "totalitarian."

With folded arms and a stern visage, this version of Dr. King is at odds with our culture's understanding of who he was. We remember him as an inspirational and welcoming figure, not a static and imposing giant.

The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission are doing the American people a great service by insisting that the aesthetics of the King memorial truly reflect the spirit of the man.

The project should not be allowed to go forward until it does.

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