When I made forays into Washington DC from Maryland with my friends in high school, sometimes with the intent to protest or hand out PB+J sandwiches to the homeless, our paths would often take us past various statues that dotted the circles and avenues of the center of the city. Most of the time, we would either make jokes about some long-forgotten geezer given a memorial for some long-forgotten deeds in long-forgotten wars. Sometimes we would just pass by without even thinking twice about what we had just seen. We were concerned about the problems of the day. We would not care to ask our history teachers later about the figures in question. Even when we made it to the Mall and the larger monuments, we would spend little time, if any, admiring the scenery. This was due, perhaps, to adolescent indifference, or the fact that most of us had seen all the big attractions (most of us had been subjected to the routine round of historical sites) every time relatives came to visit.
I can think of two statues which prompted different behavior, however, and these are probably my favorite symbolic pieces of metal and stone in D.C. First, the ten foot high stone statue of Mohatma Gandhi striding with his walking stick (Q St. across from the Indian Embassy). Gandhi is well known to many for his non-violent resistance to the British and his role in helping to end British colonial rule. Secondly, the Guns into Plowshares sculpture, formerly located in front of the municipal court building at Judiciary Square. Few know about the District's Guns for Cash program in the 1990s that turned hundreds of used firearms into a modern interpretation of Isaiah 2:4: They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. Both of these sculptures represent aspects of peace or hope for the future, things I believe should be memorialized more than any war, war hero(es), or presidents. We have memorials to every extended conflict in American history, but the grandiose memorials to the men and women of peaceful struggle, loving compassion, and conflict resolution are missing. What does this say about our country, the dream?
"A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom."
A memorial which has great potential and the promise of exemplifying values of love and peace, and has been in the works for nearly 16 years, is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Groundbreaking and preliminary construction has already commenced, and the full memorial is expected to be done and dedicated in fall 2011. The steering committee is currently $6 million off it's target of $120 million, and appreciates individual donations as well as larger fundraising commitments or ideas. You can donate and learn more at www.mlkmemorial.org.
The site lies among the cherry trees of the Tidal Basin, directly in the middle of the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. It is fitting for King's memorial to lie between two presidents who directly impacted the Civil Rights movement, one who owned slaves yet helped lay the foundation for equality and justice between all Americans, and one who freed African-Americans by signing the Emancipation Proclamation. The site is also close to the Korean War memorial, and relatively close to the Vietnam War memorial, two wars that King protested and preached against fervently. It would be fitting to find a site close by to move the Guns into Plowshares sculpture, for while it was created to shed light on the need to stop gun violence in our cities, it was created, nonetheless, out of guns from the capital city of the government that King declared to be "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world."
"And I knew I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed, in the ghettos without having first opened clearly, the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government."
I have not seen the list of quotes that will be inscripted on the memorial wall; there are almost too many good ones to use, but it is doubtful that such radical quotes like the ones above will be included, a most unfortunate tragedy but predictable considering the official dignitaries and corporate sponsors involved. For indeed, there are Americans today that still don't agree with King's politics, and not just with regards to racial equality. How many Americans would react negatively to King's scathing disapproval of two ongoing wars (of empire some would say), a bill that racially profiles Americans of Latino origin, the lack of a living wage bill, the failures of our public health and social services sectors in the face of a staggering defense budget??
King preached about a radical Christ; one who disrupted the status quo and disturbed his neighbor by speaking truth to power, raining down compassion on the poor, and loving his enemies. More so than studying Gandhi's tactics, King's theological studies and faith in the true words of Jesus Christ laid the foundation for his inspiring rhetoric of nonviolent resistance to war, imperialism and discrimination. His last words in public, from his speech "I Have Seen the Mountaintop" in Memphis the night before he was assassinated, are "I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"
It was this radical Gospel, and the radical dreams it inspired, which made King, just like Jesus, a threat to the existing system, and that's why he was eliminated, just like Jesus, just like Gandhi, just like a host of other 20th century cultural icons and movement leaders. If you consider yourself a follower of King, you may ask yourself, am I a threat to the existing system? In what I do every day, do I challenge the orthodoxy of injustice, the conformity of apathy? While some would argue human relations and our standard of living have never been greater, we still have immense problems to take care of and sacrifice for.
"It is not enough to say we must not wage war. It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it."
Considering the amount of young Americans who will see this memorial, it seems pertinent to inspire in them a radical desire for change, not just teach them the standard, watered-down versions of this trying chapter in our history. Because if the record is not set straight, and young Americans continue to fall into despair, and don't have honest beacons of hope and inspiration, then history will repeat itself, violence will not be eradicated, and injustice will continue. Because after all, to paraphrase King again, out of a respect for the law, unjust laws need to be broken, and violence has failed us. Nonviolence is the only way.
The memorial needs to be (and will hopefully be) exciting and ring true for future generations, so as not to pass the memorial off as another insignificant statue in a succession of long-forgotten men who may or may not have affected positive change for our country, the dream and our world.