Jewish World Review August 26, 2011 26 Menachem-Av, 5771
Hope for Here and for China
By Roger Simon
The controversy is inevitable because there is little in America that is grandiose (and much that is not) that is not controversial.
In the case of the King memorial, the controversy is whether the enormous statue of one of the greatest figures in American history should be stamped "Made in China."
The "Stone of Hope" statue of Dr. King was sculpted in China by a Chinese sculptor out of Chinese granite and shipped to the United States, where it was assembled by Chinese workers.
The Chinese workers were paid nothing — which would seem to me to violate not only Dr. King's principles but also U.S. anti-slavery laws — though they were hoping to get paid something when they returned to China.
The Statue of Liberty, I should point out, was sculpted by a Frenchman in France. But it was a gift to the United States and celebrated a concept, not an actual human being who lived and died in America and for America.
Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin was selected by the King memorial people, and Lei worked from scores of photographs of King. Lei is famous in China for his work, especially his statue of Mao Zedong.
But some critics have asked a pretty basic question: Was there no American sculptor, especially an African-American sculptor, who was capable of sculpting a statue of Dr. King?
Apparently not, at least according to the people who did the selection. What's more, even though hundreds of thousands of experienced — and unionized — American construction workers are currently unemployed, did we really need to bring in workers from China to put the sculpture together?
Yes, Edward Jackson Jr., the executive architect of the project, recently told Courtland Milloy of The Washington Post. "Not only did we need an artist, we needed someone with the means and methods of putting those large stones together," Jackson said. "We don't do this in America. We don't handle stones of this size."
Jackson has worked long and hard to get the King memorial built, and he is deserving of recognition for his efforts and dedication. But his statement is pure baloney. The sculptures at the site are made up of 159 blocks of granite, and I think the United States of America — somehow — could have scoured its citizenry and found people who knew how to put together 159 blocks of granite.
Even though the King "Stone of Hope" sculpture is huge — 30 feet high, compared with 19 feet 6 inches for the seated figure of Abraham Lincoln and 19 feet for the standing figure of Thomas Jefferson at their memorials — I really feel there is a union hall somewhere in this country right now with people sitting around who can handle a 30-foot project.
They would expect to get paid, of course. The prevailing wage for an American stonemason in the Washington area is $32 an hour, plus $12 an hour in benefits.
The Post, which has done some very good reporting on the project over the years, had a reporter go out with a representative of a local union that represents stonemasons to see how the Chinese workers were being treated. It turns out they were being housed in a very nice high-rise in Crystal City, Va., and were being given free room and board, but no pay.
The union rep took a Chinese-speaking translator along, and he asked one of the laborers why the men would work without pay.
"Because they are working for 'national honor,'" the worker said. "To bring glory to the Chinese people."
We have a sense of national honor and glory, too, of course. Dr. King told a union crowd of striking sanitation workers in Memphis on the evening of April 3, 1968: "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life — longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. ... I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land."
The following night, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, he was assassinated.
With the dedication of his national memorial coming up in a few days, it would be nice to concentrate only on that which is pleasant and uncontroversial.
But Dr. King died for something, and it wasn't for Americanism or national pride. It was for the universal principles of justice, peace and freedom. For here and for China, too.
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