In Rocky Mount, North Carolina, the locals are already celebrating by a racial power struggle between whites and blacks. What the New York Times reported about the conflict last month tells us something about race relations today. [King Statue, a Unity Symbol, Severely Tests the Dream, By Jeffrey Gettleman, NYT, December 13, 2003]
Rocky Mount is a small city that is 55 percent white and 45 percent black, and for years the whites who have historically run the place have tried to show the blacks how progressive they are on racial issues. In 1997 the white-run city decided to build a public park that honored King, who actually invited himself to Rocky Mount back in 1962 and delivered his usual oration about having a dream, etc. To honor King even more, the city fathers commissioned a statue of him to adorn the park and inspire everybody.
They gave the contract to a sculptor in Chicago, and he built a model that was put on display in the City Hall and arts center and stood there for more than a year. A black-majority commission approved the design, and the statue was built and installed last summer.
The blacks didn’t like it.
A local black church leader, the Rev. Elbert Lee, announced “That ain’t Dr. King. The lips, the eyes, the mustache, the cheeks. It don’t look like him.”
The sculptor turned out to be white. You perhaps begin to see the problem.
“White people don’t look at us as we look at ourselves,” a local black artist named Ed Dwight intoned to the Times. “I compete with many white artists all over the country, and they bring their maquettes in and they don’t look anything like the subject.”
It’s a black thing, I guess. Mr. Dwight himself says, “It’s a cultural thing, a very, very spiritual thing.”
Whatever it is, it’s a problem for the local installment of racial harmony the city’s white bigwigs imagined they were boosting. As the Timesreports:
“The moment the statue went up, people started grumbling, especially residents in the mostly black neighborhood where it was placed. For some, the statue’s pose seemed ‘arrogant’ and the face did not look like Dr. King’s. And worse, some said the sculptor who made it is white.”
The sculptor is Eric Blome, who has made sculptures of such black icons as Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall and King himself for various public memorials. There’s a big trade in black statues these days, you see, what with all these white bigwigs promoting racial harmony all the time.
But the problem is you can’t have harmony when the sculptor’s a white guy.
“We need an artist who can relate,” says a local black resident, who with others is demanding the city junk the statue and spring for a new one.
What Rocky Mount really needs is probably to forget the whole thing and name the park after Andy Griffith or Jesse Helms or somebody who actually had something to do with the state. What the white guys who run the town accomplished with their phony little adventure in racial harmony was to plow the divisions deeper than ever.
As the Times also notes:
“Rocky Mount is now polarized as ever, over a symbol of racial unity, which has sparked protests and fiery night meetings in old churches, untapping an energy rarely seen since the civil rights days when people were marching in the streets with the living, breathing Dr. King.”
And what is behind the division is not “culture” or “spirit” or some other opacity but race. What the experiment with the King statue shows is that race remains real, at least for the black side of the conflict.
For the whites, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but they tried to pretend at least that race didn’t matter. What they found is that it does.
Last month, blacks took over a majority on the city council for the first time in the city’s history, “marking,” as the Times reports, “a shift of power that has worked its way through many Southern cities as white residents flock to the suburbs.”
Now we’ll see whose statue the city puts up and who it looks like.
As for the sculptor, he has his own thoughts about the episode:“That’s what’s so frustrating about this whole thing. This is a statue of Martin Luther King. Wasn’t King about transcending race?”
Well, not really.
What King was about was the same thing the statue episode is about—the awakening of one race and its gradual displacement of another.
It just took a few years for that to become clear.
For the sculptor and the white guys who hired him and a lot of other people, it still isn’t.