The construction of the MLK National Memorial on the Mall marks a significant accomplishment in a century-long fight by black Americans to claim space in the nation’s symbolic landscape and historical consciousness. Another recent triumph came when Congress approved funding and the site for the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, designed by Freelon Adjaye Bond and soon to commence construction near the Washington Monument.

Prior to the Civil War, enslaved Africans were not accorded the rights of American citizenship; they were by law property and persons. Once these men, women, and children were finally emancipated, those rights of citizenship were not, however, fully enfranchised. In the South, black men by the turn of the century lost their voting privileges and efforts to accrue wealth by property ownership and wage labor were impeded by anti-black racism. Because of Jim Crow laws and practices throughout all regions of the United States, black Americans lacked the public and private rights of citizenship critical to exercising power in the political and economic spheres. A critical dimension of Jim Crow segregation limited the movement of blacks in the rural areas, towns, and cities where they resided, including limiting access to the public spaces of the nation’s capital.

The effort begun in 1915 by the National Memorial Association (NMA) to erect in Washington, D.C., a memorial to honor the service of black soldiers was a bold move by black Americans. Ferdinand Lee, the head of the NMA, sought to insert the contribution of black soldiers into the nation’s historical narrative. Lee argued:  “[T]heir deeds of bravery, their loyalty and patriotism, should be immortalized in statues and memorials as those of other people.” The proposed Neo-Classical memorial designed by architect Edward R. Williams would also function as a museum, gallery, and auditorium—because the city’s large black population lacked access to those public amenities due to segregation. This effort to erect a national monument to the memory of “Negro Soldiers and Sailors of All Wars” lasted until the late 1920s, but ended when the NMA failed to find funding from private and public sources.

Around the same time the NMA was galvanizing support for its monument, the Daughters of the Confederacy proposed to also erect a memorial in the nation’s capital. But this one would be a monument exalting the virtues of their former slave and servant—the Black Mammy. This commemoration of enslavement received wide support from sympathetic boosters in the North and South, but many black Americans, including the members of the NMA, found the proposed monument offensive and degrading. This struggle over how to represent the legacy of blacks in America continued through the 20th century. The King Memorial offers a fitting apotheosis to the desires of those early coalitions of black American memorial builders.

Mabel O. Wilson is an associate professor in architecture at Columbia University’s GSAPP where she directs the Advanced Architectural Research program. Her book Negro Building–Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums will be published by the University of California Press in May 2012.

Other opinions about the memorial:
Yolande Daniels, a founding design principal of the architecture partnership studioSUMO.