Politics & Policy

Dissing MLK

A sculptor of Mao becomes a sculptor of America's civil-rights hero.

A monument in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. will be built at the Washington, D.C., tidal basin, between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials. But the choice of the memorial’s sculptor has raised eyebrows, and for very good reasons.

Lei Yixin, the Chinese artist selected by the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Foundation to sculpt the statue of King, is certainly famous. He has produced more than a dozen statues and busts of Mao Tse-Tung, the ruthless tyrant who was responsible for the deaths of more than 70 million of his own people. We should not tarnish the memory of King by forever linking him to a sculptor who miscasts a mass murderer as a hero.

Lei’s selection is as inappropriate as to have hired Leni Riefenstahl, the notorious Nazi propagandist film director, to direct a film biography of Simon Wiesenthal. When asked about Lei, Harry E. Johnson Sr., president and CEO of the Memorial Foundation claims ignorance; “We didn’t question Lei about his politics or his ideology,” Johnson says. But in that failure lies a failure to understand King’s message, that one man cannot be indifferent to the suffering of another. Johnson’s lack of world perspective is antithetical to King’s challenge to the world.

Let us rise to King’s challenge posed to us in his 1968 speech: “We are challenged to develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone, and anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a revolution. The world we live is geographically one. The challenge that we face today is to make it one in terms of brotherhood…. It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.’” This is the perspective King espoused, that we should not turn a blind eye on the injustices around the world.

By turning a blind eye to China’s human-rights record by bestowing the honor of sculpting King’s statue on a regime propagandist, what kind of world perspective would we be projecting? King would have denounced China’s miserable human rights records. In fact, Coretta Scott King spoke up for students when the Chinese military perpetrated the Tiananmen Square massacre; she also condemned the persecution of the Falun Gong practitioners in China.

While there was a competition for the overall design of the four acres memorial site, where the proposed design by the Roma Design Group was selected as the winner, there was no competition for the design and sculpting of King’s statue. Lei was attending a stone-carving forum in St. Paul, Minnesota, in May 2006, when a team from the Memorial Foundation found him sleeping at a nearby lawn, woke him up, and offered him the job.

We should judge Lei by the content of his character. But given that he has uncritically devoted himself to a government that, according to Amnesty International, has one of the worst human-rights record in the world, the prospects of that evaluation are dark. King’s message of peace and justice is tarnished by having an artist who has glorified the opposite. We must all stand up and defend the memory of Martin Luther King Jr.

 Ann Lau is the chairman of the Visual Artists Guild, a nonprofit human-rights organization. A petition protesting the selection of Lei Yixin is available here.


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