University alumni honored for designing new Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial

Carolyn Kaster/AP
The new Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C. was designed by two 'U' alumni.

By Jacob Axelrad, Daily Community Culture Editor
Published October 30, 2011

Carved from granite, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial stands on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the site of King’s historic 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. King’s image looms powerfully over the northwest corner of the Tidal Basin — the same spot where each spring cherry blossoms blanket the basin in a sea of pink and white.

Though the pink and white blossoms may continue to frame the memorial for years to come, the memorial would never have come to fruition without the hard work and dedication of two men representing the maize and blue of the University.

The University’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning honored University alumni Ed Jackson and James Chaffers on Friday for their instrumental roles in the design and production of the memorial, in addition to their contribution to the ideals put forward by King himself. Jackson served as executive architect of the memorial and Chaffers, a professor emeritus in the College of Architecture and Urban Planning, served as senior design juror.

Moderated by Milton Curry, associate dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Planning, the event consisted of a question-and-answer session among a panel of scholars from the University and the area. The panel members discussed the moral and ethical implications of converting King’s ideology into a concrete structure.

According to the panelists, a discussion regarding the lack of markers on the National Mall showing African Americans’ contribution to the country led to the creation of the memorial, which was originally conceived in 1983 and was dedicated on Oct. 16. Honoring King was a logical choice, but exactly how to commemorate his vision for international peace and justice was unclear.

“We knew that Dr. King was a person of many facets,” Chaffers said. “Even today we still have yet to comprehend and capture the magnitude of Dr. King’s mind.”

Using a famous line from King’s 1963 speech, “out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope,” the architectural team decided to visually render his words. The monument displays King on a stone that appears to be extracted from a giant boulder — a physical 30-foot tall stone of hope “out of the mountain of despair” King surmounted during his life. Jackson said Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin wished to portray King as a “warrior for peace” by having him jut out of the stone as a soldier might charge into battle.

Jackson said the designers wanted the monument not simply to be representative of a man from the past, but rather to remind visitors of King’s key values in the form of a “living memorial.”

“We move beyond looking at Dr. King as a civil rights leader,” he said. “This should be a memorial for a global leader for peace that captures his four main themes: justice, democracy, hope and love.”

The panelists also noted the broader cultural ramifications the memorial has for Washington, D.C. and the country. Tourists from around the world who visit the National Mall will now see King in the context in which he belongs, adjacent to the best-known American leaders and patriots, said Jon Onye Lockard, artist and adjunct senior lecturer in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies.

“King stands next to Lincoln, Jefferson and the Washington Monument,” Lockard said. “We sometimes forget about things like who built D.C. and slave labor. But these things are part of our history. And when people look at the memorial they will not see it standing alone. This will help bring out people’s humanity.”

For Jackson and Chaffers, King’s message is one that should never be forgotten, one as important as the civil rights movement itself.

“This monument is as much about America as it is about Dr. King,” Jackson said in an interview after the event.

The monument and its natural surroundings will remind visitors to renew their commitment to King’s goals every year, Jackson said during the panel. The memorial team planted an additional 182 cherry blossoms to the Tidal Basin’s collection.

“Our children will go on their eighth grade school trips to D.C. and see King next to Lincoln and Jefferson,” Kelly Quinn, director and chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, said during the discussion. “The memorial is going to be in kids’ Facebook photos. People will fall in love under the memorial. It’s a living monument and all sorts of life will happen under that monument.”