The MLK Memorial materializes an event, a movement, a moment in time. It is neither re-enactment, nor is it kitsch. For me, it is a forceful backdrop—a corrective measure working against the dematerialization of Dr. King in our cultural memory. It works to keep us from forgetting, or disavowing, visually, the memory of events such as the March on Washington, the Selma to Montgomery March, and others. In its singular symbolic power, situated among the nation’s metropolitan monuments, the MLK Memorial reconfigures the figurative space of the mall.
The story—the narrative of America—is a spatial story, a landscape story, and an architectural story. The choice to fragment the figure of Dr. King from the other metaphorical mountains, and the idea of using fragmented text to decipher his many messages, is deliberate and impactful.
Symbolism and metaphor are rarely as simple as they may seem. As we have seen with Eisenman Architects’ memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Berlin and in the World Trade Center Memorial, these are nuanced messages about the fixed identity of those people memorialized that change and evolve over time. These monuments remind us, as Ed Jackson, Jr., executive architect of the MLK Memorial, states, the memorial is not for Dr. King, it is for those alive now.
The Civil Rights movement stands as the natural catalyst for the MLK Memorial. And with the as well as the forthcoming National African American Civil Rights Museum preparing to break ground, we are running short of contemporary moments to memorialize. As this displacement occurs—the displacement of our experience of the Civil Rights into memory—new experiences and memories will emerge. But as they do, they emerge necessarily with a more diverse polity, a coalition-centered polity structured around issues of inequity, inequality, and structural problems with the State’s role in effectuating social change. That is the change that the MLK Memorial recognizes and represents.
Milton S. F. Curry is an associate professor of architecture at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. He is the associate dean for academic affairs and strategic initiatives and the director of the program for post-professional degrees in architecture.