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The glory of Kings memorial speaks of an inglorious history

William Covington | 8/24/2011, 5 p.m.

The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial being dedicated this weekend will be only the fifth exterior monument immortalizing African Americans in Washington, D.C., and the 1,001st outside statue in the District commemorating a national public figure. The monument's location at the National Mall will be a first for a major monument honoring a non-president and an African American.

The monument actually opened Monday to a small crowd, but officials expect a very large turnout this Sunday during the official dedication that coincides with the 48th anniversary of King's transformative "I Have a Dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington. The American public has embraced the project, according to a new Gallup Poll released Monday showing a 91 percent approval. The poll, conducted Aug. 4-7, found that 91 percent of Blacks and 89 percent of Whites approve of the monument.

The memorial has been a long time in the making, the mid-1980s brainchild of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. During the fall of 1996, the Senate and House approved joint resolutions authorizing the building of the memorial honoring the civil rights leader. President Bill Clinton signed the resolution in 1998, and in 1999 the King Memorial Foundation began accepting design proposals.

The design of the 30-foot sculpture took form from a line in one of King's speeches: "With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope." The monument sculpture depicts King emerging from the mountain of despair and thus forming "a stone of hope"--his own monumental image. However, as in the nation itself, the monument evidences the slow recognition of African American contributions. The King memorial monument is surrounded by memorials of four former presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington.

A survey of monuments in the nation's capital turned up only four others depicting African Americans solely or grouped with subjects from other ethnicities:

* The Emancipation Memorial
* The Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial
* The Three Soldiers
* The African American Civil War Memorial

Additionally, although it is not in Washington, D.C. also included is a brief discussion of the Statue of Liberty, which some believe was originally portrayed an African American. There are several plaques in the District that pay homage to African Americans; however, the focus here is on monuments.

Kirk Savage, associate professor of the history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh and author of "Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century," has researched the sculptured monuments that increasingly came to dominate streets, parks and town squares in 19th-century America. His book also discusses the depiction of Blacks immortalized in plaster, slate, marble, and bronze, and the metamorphosis of the depictions of African slaves from subhuman painted figures with protruding mandibles (ape-like) to those with the normal features of the modern men.

According to the Browne Papers, a collection of manuscripts discussing the "Negro" in modern art, there were no sculptures depicting slaves in bronze or marble during that time in the United States.