Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Reflecting upon Mary McLeod Bethune in light of this weekend's MLK Jr. Memorial debut.

Construction photo of "Mountain of Despair" with Jefferson dome in background. Photo taken Aug. 11th, 2011, in advance of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial debut on Aug. 28th, the 48th anniversary of the day King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Photo by the author.


BY KELLY QUINN
Quadrant fellow and assistant professor in the American Studies program at Miami University


According to a recent television advertisement, Chevrolet invites viewers “to take your seat at the table on August 28th” (Spike DDB, “Table of Brotherhood,” 2011). On screen men, women, and children of various ages, races, ethnicities, religions, and classes meet across a very long, narrow table, a table of brotherhood, that snakes from the water’s edge through an abandoned block in New Orleans, across lush lawns, down a musalla in a mosque, through fields of industrial corn and other commodity crops, between rows of high school lockers, next to a diner, through a stand of trees, around curvilinear suburban streets, near high rise urban office buildings, to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the national capital, Washington, D.C.

As a major corporate sponsor of the monument, Chevy beckons us to the dedication ceremonies of the new memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that will open in West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C., on August 28th. Organizers estimate that hundreds of thousands of visitors will make a pilgrimage to the Mall this weekend for the concerts and speeches to be held on the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. And many more will follow in the upcoming months and years.

Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, government officials, journalists, architectural critics, and everyday people recognize its significance: it is the first memorial devoted to an African American individual on the Washington Mall. Tucked between the Lincoln and the Jefferson, in close proximity to the Washington and adjacent to the FDR, this memorial site is auspicious and charged. Indeed, the orchestrated space requires visitors to encounter and enact King’s texts, moving through a large boulder, “The Mountain of Despair,” to an open plaza. Once there, sculptor Lei Yixin’s King emerges from “The Stone of Hope.” (Check out this great Washington Post feature for more info on this layout.) This move places the King Memorial on axis with the Lincoln and Jefferson monuments, forming a “line of leadership.”

This line calls to mind another vista of monuments in the city, one that also commemorates leaders, on grounds maintained by the National Park Service. On Capitol Hill, along the major boulevard, East Capitol Street, Thomas Ball’s “Emancipation Group,” (1876) -- with its sculptural representations of a newly emancipated man and President Lincoln -- engages Robert Berks’ sculpture (1974) of two children with Mary McLeod Bethune, the Civil Rights advocate, educator, and African American clubwoman. The grand neighborhood park is on axis with the Capitol.

Just as the men of Alpha Phi Alpha, King’s fraternal order, proposed a national memorial to honor the King legacy, members of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) sponsored the program for a monument to Bethune, their founder. Timed to mark Bethune’s 99th birthday in 1974, NCNW hosted extensive, formal memorial ceremonies attended by 18,000 people from around the United States. Some programs were free, open to general public; others were ticketed affairs with admission fees.

On the evening of July 9th, the night before the official ceremonies, local residents -- drummers and brothers -- Cyril and Charles “Pee Wee” Jackson joined their friends Marie Brown, James Kilgore, and Reginald Mack. Together, they formed a quintet
Robert Berks' Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial,
pictured in May 2011. Photo by author.
performing for roughly 150 people that evening. They followed a summer routine in which African American families and friends, men and women, led largely by young people, brought musical instruments – conga drums, flute, tambourines, and gongs – to their neighborhood park for informal performances. Some danced; others sat and listened, absorbing the tableau. As Pee Wee Jackson explained to a reporter from Washington Post, “This performance is really off schedule, but this is a special night since we got this new lady in the neighborhood.” The “new lady in the neighborhood” was Mary McLeod Bethune, or rather a 17-foot-tall bronze sculpture of her.

“Hey, man, you know how those official ceremonies are,” observed Charles (Pee Wee) Jackson, who lived across the street from the park. “They’ll probably have some symphony orchestra and everybody will be all dressed up and everything. So we decided to come out here tonight and welcome Mrs. Bethune in our way.”

Jackson didn’t need Chevrolet to invite him to the table. He and his friends made their own way in a public park amid a “line of leaders.” In so doing, they activated a public park that had recently been re-sited by Hilyard R. Robinson (1899-1986), a Washington, D.C.-based African American architect who worked with NCNW, the National Park Service, and the Commission of Fine Arts to execute a revised design for the landscape. The plan for the Bethune Memorial was Robinson’s last major commission, after a lengthy career of designing and building modernist buildings for African American men, women, and children.

According to Robinson’s plan for the park, the bronze Bethune memorial stands atop a granite podium, floating in a sunken outdoor amphitheater. Next to it, on a playground, local residents enact one of the most oft-repeated of King’s images: little black boys and girls hold hands with little white boys and girls.

Should you join the legion of visitors to the King Memorial, leave the monumental core, get off the Mall, and check out the District of Columbia’s neighborhoods. Visit places like Lincoln Park where everyday people make memorials their own.

See www.mlkmemorial.org for more information about the MLK memorial.

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Kelly Quinn
is assistant professor in the American studies program at Miami University. Her research focuses on architect Hilyard R. Robinson, and she has a book about him forthcoming with University of Minnesota Press.

Learn more about Kelly Quinn's research and experience with UMP's Quadrant program.

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