The effigy of a black man, a son of Southern soil and descendant of slaves, now stands over the nation’s Mall among its founding fathers, notorious slave owner in front and the so-called Great Emancipator to his back. Looking out over the placid Tidal Basin with a steely-eyed reserve and chiseled determination, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, the first monument on the Mall dedicated to a man of color, has whipped up yet another tempest of protest. Besides the same types who did not and still do not commemorate the life of this influential Civil Rights leader on the third Monday of every January, other dissenters have noted that the veined, confrontational depiction of the Brother Preacher by the Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin does not evoke the round docility associated with the open-armed love of nonviolence. For them, the image goes against what they see as King’s true legacy, while others see the statute as an appropriate stance of well-grounded, stony defiance and pride.
Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak had already stepped down, following a popular movement that established a micro-republic, the Gumhuriyyah el-Tahrir (Republic of Liberty), which contradicted the pervading logic of the international economic system. And now protesters in Wisconsin were occupying the state house to prevent the passing of legislation that would effectively suspend bargaining rights for public workers. Sitting in a Washington newsroom, we needed a headline. I very quickly suggested something along these lines: “Middle East unrest spreads to the Midwest.” I got a side eye. After all, how could a free and open society, the democratic society, be taking its cues from, of all places, Egypt, an antique land with backward ways, Islamic fundamentalists, and Arab dictators? The editors went with a more modest title.