Artists Submit Design Changes to MLK Memorial Sculpture Deemed Confrontational

Artists working on a Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial submitted changes Thursday to address concerns that a proposed rendering made him look confrontational and like a socialist leader.

Changes to the 28-foot "Stone of Hope" sculpture were requested by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, a federal panel that helps oversee monuments and memorials on the National Mall.

The commission didn't vote, but members indicated they would approve the changes.

"This is how people are going to remember (King)," said commission vice chairman Pamela Nelson. "It's critical to his legacy for ages to come. That's why we're so careful."

Ed Jackson Jr., the project's executive architect, said designers softened King's face slightly at the brow and the mouth. The updated design maintains King's look of consternation but turns his mouth up slightly to resemble the hint of a smile.

"Whether it is a concerned look or a much more pleasant face, what's most important though, to us, is you've got to capture this," Jackson said, motioning to a photograph showing determination in King's eyes.

Officials with the King memorial foundation refused to release a photograph showing the facial changes.

The revised design depicts King's upper body emerging from "The Stone of Hope" with rocky granite covering most of his legs to help emphasize King's emergence as a symbol of hope, Jackson said. The quote inscribed on the centerpiece will read "Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope."

King's arms remain firmly crossed in the sculpture.

"This is the most talked about aspect of the memorial — whether or not Dr. King would stand with his arms folded," Jackson said. "We felt that this image of Dr. King was visually positive, representing him as someone who was self-contained, calm, introspective, confident and determined."

The critique of the King statue follows criticism last year over the selection of Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin to carve its central element. Critics said the sculptor should be black, or at least American, and that King would have been appalled by China's poor record on human rights.

Harry Johnson, president of the foundation overseeing the project, said the design is still a work in progress until final approval from regulators in Washington.

Fundraising for the memorial stands at $94.8 million of the $100 million goal, though Johnson said the foundation will announce a higher goal in coming weeks.

At a dinner scheduled for Thursday night in Atlanta, the foundation was to announce a $1 million gift from Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., $250,000 from CVS Caremark Corp., the nation's largest pharmacy chain, and $1.8 million from other donors.

The King memorial would be the first major tribute to the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner outside Atlanta, where he was born in 1929. It is to be built on the banks of the Tidal Basin, between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials.

Organizers said they hope to complete the memorial by spring 2010, pushed back from earlier estimates for a 2009 opening.

The memorial will feature a granite carving, a raised walkway and King's celebrated quotes engraved in stone walls. The statue of King will be the largest on the Mall.