Copyrighting the Dream: Selling Martin Luther King, Jr.

The "I Have  Dream" quote on the King statue (image courtesy vitor408)

The “I Have Dream” quote on the King statue (image courtesy vitor408)

Planning for the King Memorial began in earnest in 1998, when Congress authorized King’s fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, to form the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Foundation.  The Foundation paid roughly $2.7 million to the King children to use his likeness and quotes on the monument, with the estate halting the memorial’s fundraising in 2001 when it required payment for the use of King’s likeness and words.  Last week the estate required the foundation to re-name itself “The Memorial Foundation” and drop any reference to King.

George Washington hawks men's underwear

George Washington hawks men’s underwear

The discord over King’s memorialization is not simply aesthetic anxiety about the artistic virtues of a statue; instead, it is apprehension about how such figures in collective memory are given popular meaning and how scholars, artists, and marketers attempt to control and distort those meanings.  For most observers, King is fundamentally distinct in his “celebrity” status from Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Justin Bieber, but he shares an awkward legal ground with them hawking products, dispensing philosophical insights, and producing profit.  We live in a moment in which Napoleon and George Washington are peddling men’s underwear; Queen Elizabeth’s image plugs a bank; Jack Kerouac celebrated khaki; Gandhi, Picasso and Edison are among the historical figures selling Apple; and in the most unethical leverage of historical figures Hitler sells tea.  Meanwhile, Abe Lincoln is killing vampires, Socrates lends a hand on Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and Doctor Who has met up with Vincent Van Gogh and numerous other historical figures.  Nevertheless, that continual erosion of the sacrosanct historical figure has rarely threatened to include Martin Luther King, Jr., who has yet to travel through time, find his way into fan fiction, or be plastered across a vast range of goods (at least legally).

Looking into the King Memorial toward the King statue (image courtesy ctankcycles)

Looking into the King Memorial toward the King statue (image courtesy ctankcycles)

The Root’s Jack White soberly acknowledged that the King estate may deserve to profit from King’s words and image just as much as Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, or Michael Jackson’s families.  However, White underscores that social justice, faith, and philosophical uplift cannot be priced and exist somehow outside the marketplace.  Still, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between, on the one hand, an artist peddling creative skills, a craftsperson selling their wares, or a multinational selling mass-produced foods, and, on the other hand, public scholars, intellectuals, and activists pressing for social justice.  Many contemporary political voices are indeed musicians, artists, and actors and actresses, a pedigree that includes Ronald Reagan, Angelina Jolie, Jon Voight, Chuck Norris, and Bono, so the lines between social activism, partisan politics, popular culture, and commodification is increasingly ambiguous.

The King Memorial hosts a steady stream of tourists (image courtesy ehpien).

The King Memorial hosts a steady stream of tourists (image courtesy ehpien).

Simply representing Martin Luther King’s consequence in American society in a material form is itself complicated enough—that is, how can King’s social and philosophical importance be rendered in a massive memorial landscape without reducing it to caricature?  Many communities have invoked King as a symbol of civil rights and African-American heritage through street naming.  Derek Alderman’s 2006 study of MLK street naming found that by 2003 more than 730 American towns had some street named after Martin Luther King, Jr. (overwhelmingly in the South).  In 2002 Alderman also examined the politics of naming in a study of the 110 schools named after King.

Quotes ring the wall of the King Memorial.

Quotes ring the wall of the King Memorial.

Other communities have commissioned statuary that places the nearly universally recognizable face of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the landscape.  King statues or memorials include the Martin Luther King Memorial in Buffalo (1977); the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Seattle (1991); the Yerba Buena Gardens Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in San Francisco (1993); the Landmark for Peace Memorial in Indianapolis, Indiana (1994); Omaha Nebraska; Charlotte, North Carolina; Roanoke, Virginia; Sherman, Texas (1987); Santa Clara, California; Fort Wayne, Indiana (2011); the University of North Florida campus in Jacksonville, Florida (2012); Oakland, California; and Racine, Wisconsin (1995) (compare the Smithsonian Inventory or for more examples).  Some of these have sparked local tensions, such as a King statue in Rocky Mount, North Carolina that was removed in 2005 because African Americans deemed it “arrogant” and it had been made by a White artist (two years later it was returned to public space).  King’s face and physical form are a powerful symbol, but they are a remarkably complex symbol.

The King statue in Birmingham, Alabama (image courtesy jimmywayne).

The King statue in Birmingham, Alabama (image courtesy jimmywayne).

King is part of what Erika Doss refers to as “memorial mania,” a move towards publicly memorializing much of our heritage, a mania that is driven by anxiety over what we should collectively remember.  King’s statuary presence in increasingly more communities may reflect a widespread anxiety about racism and an effort to symbolically resolve racist heritage in many places; however, the widespread invocation of King may also be a clumsy invocation of King’s own philosophy and heritage that displays his form—the literal sign representing King—as it is evoking King’s activism for racial justice.

As with many other King monuments, the Washington memorial has received a significant amount of aesthetic commentary revolving around over how a statue represents such a complex figure.  For instance, The Atlantic’s Michael Crosbie criticized the memorial, in part because its entrance through a “mountain” passageway is an “obtuse” reference to the quote “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” which is borrowed from the “I Have a Dream Speech.”  The entrance leads visitors to a monumental stone statue of a stern King with what what Atlantic Cities referred to as an “almost constipated facial expression.”  The King statue sits removed from the mountain, and Crosbie suggests that few visitors comprehend that symbolic allusion, arguing that “when you first see this carved mountain it might remind you of a ride at Disneyland, or a miniature Mount Rushmore.”

The King Memorial in Seattle (image courtesy Char Redmond).

The King Memorial in Seattle (image courtesy Char Redmond).

The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott likewise suggested that the memorial was “stuck uncomfortably between the conceptual and literal”: that is, the memorial weaves a compelling rhetorical allusion to hope being extracted from despair, but Kennicott also is skeptical that visitors can capture the complex allusions, or perhaps that the statue itself cannot provide them in intelligible form.  In the physical reality of moving around the memorial landscape, Kennicott suggests that visitors find that “it turns out to be a rather tricky thing to base architectural design on rhetorical tropes.  Especially King’s rhetoric. The master orator was remarkably inventive in his metaphors and eclectic in his sources.”  The New York Times’ Edward Rothstein simply dubbed the memorial “a failure” based largely on its overdone “grandiosity.”

Aesthetics are inevitably hard-pressed to satisfy every audience, and translating the complex philosophical sentiments and oratory of King to a material form is certainly challenging.  Michael Crosbie’s most interesting lament is that the “stone of hope” quote replaced the original plan for the quote “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.  This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  Crosbie suggests the latter quote linked Jefferson, the Civil Rights movement, and Lincoln and Emancipation, who sit in proximity alongside each other, but the King Memorial in its present form risks being a memorial to King, not to the civil rights movement, the centrality of race in American life, or African-American heritage.

Indianapolis' Landmark for Peace depicts King reaching out to Robert Kennedy, who delivered a speech subduing riots in Indianapolis after King's death (image coutresy WikiProject Public Art)

Indianapolis’ Landmark for Peace depicts King reaching out to Robert Kennedy, who delivered a speech subduing riots in Indianapolis after King’s death (image coutresy WikiProject Public Art)

For all the complaints, though, the memorial has a constant stream of visitors who do not seem especially unsettled by the aesthetic conventions used to represent King.  For many of those visitors, the King estate’s effort to control his symbolism likely passes without much notice, and they may be most invested in King simply getting a foothold on the National Mall.  In that role, King may have become the public symbol of African America, and the stream of visitors to the new Washington memorial may interpret King and his broader philosophical entreaties for racial justice in many ways the estate and a King statue cannot control.  Perhaps any symbol can be reduced to a commodity, including Martin Luther King, Jr.; maybe the estate has risked reducing one of the 20th century’s most prominent thinkers to a romanticized symbol; and possibly the complexity of King’s rhetoric escapes many of us and is not especially amenable to even the most fluid piece of granite.  But King has become part of popular discourse, some with profound consequence that confronts racism and inequality and some that may risk reducing King’s activism to simplistic forms.  In either form, it is unlikely that the King’s estate’s best efforts to manage that symbolism are ever going to completely control how we see Martin Luther King, Jr.


Derek H. Alderman

2002 School Names as Cultural Arenas: The Naming of US Public Schools after Martin Luther King, Jr.  Urban Geography 23(7): 601-626.

2003 Street Names and the Scaling of Memory: The Politics of Commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr within the African American Community.  Area 35(2):163-173.

2006 Naming Streets for Martin Luther King, Jr.: No Easy Road.  In Landscape and Race in the United States, ed. Richard H, Schein, pp.213-36. Routledge, New York.

Derek H. Alderman and Owen J. Dwyer

2004 Putting Memory in its Place: The Politics of Commemoration in the American South. WorldMinds: Geographical Perspectives on 100 Problems, eds D.G. Janelle et al, pp.55-60.  Kluwer, New York.

Renée Ater

2010 Slavery and Its Memory in Public Monuments. American Art 24(1): 20-23.

Guillermo G. Caliendo

2011 MLK Boulevard Material Forms of Memory and the Social Contestation of Racial Signification.  Journal of Black Studies 42(7):1148-1170.

Erika Doss

2012 Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Bernard K. Duffy and Richard D. Besel.

2010 Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” and the Politics of Cultural Memory: An Apostil.  ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews 23(3):184-191.

Owen J. Dwyer

2000 Focus Section: Women in Geography in the 21st Century: Interpreting the Civil Rights Movement: Place, Memory, and Conflict.  The Professional Geographer 52(4):660-671.

Victoria J. Gallagher

1995 Remembering Together: Rhetorical integration and the case of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.  The Southern Communications Journal 60(2):109-119.  (subscription access)

Patrick Slattery

2006 Deconstructing Racism One Statue at a Time: Visual Culture Wars at Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin.  Visual Arts Research 32(2): 28-31.  (subscription access)

Dell Upton

Nd African-American Monuments and MemorialsCommemorative Landscapes


King Memorial image courtesy cooper.gary

From the mountain of despair image courtesy victor408

View into MLK Memorial image courtesy ctankcycles

King Memorial tourists image courtesy ehpien

Birmingham MLK statue image courtesy jimmywayne

Seattle King Memorial image courtesy Chas Redmond

Indianapolis Landmark for Peace image courtesy WikiProject Public Art

Posted on April 1, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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