'Arrogant' monument to King to be pulled down

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Everyone in Rocky Mount appears to agree that the small North Carolina city should honour the memory of Martin Luther King with a statue. What they cannot agree on is what the statue should look like.

In the latest twist to a wrangle dating back years, a specially commissioned statue of King is to be pulled down and sold to help pay for a more "African American" statue of the civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1968.

"It has been decided to take it down and to dispose of it by selling it," said Fred Turnage, who has been the city's mayor for 31 years. "The biggest concern we heard from people was that the face of the statue did not look like the face of Dr King.

"That was the view of a number of African American citizens. I'm not an art expert, I think the statue is very nice, a quality piece of work. But I can understand what some are saying."

The decision to commission a statue dates to 1997 when the city voted to honour King by establishing a park named in his memory in the centre of the town and to complete it with a bronze sculpture.

Many citizens were aware that it was Rocky Mount where the civil rights leader tested one of his most famous speeches, declaring in November 1962: "My friends in Rocky Mount, I have a dream tonight."

The council commissioned an Illinois-based artist, Erik Blome, to produce the $56,000 statute. Mr Blome, who is white, had previously produced statues of Rosa Parks, the civil rights icon, and Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice.

After deciding on the image of King that he wanted to portray, Blome placed an 18-inch model of the statue in the public library to allow people to see what he planned to produce.

There were no complaints from residents, at least not until he produced the full-size statue.

Almost instantly, a number of critics, the majority of them black, complained that the statue appeared "arrogant" and said King's face did not look realistic. Some complained that Blome was white.

Elbert Lee, 72, a Baptist preacher who knew King, complained: "That ain't Dr King. The lips, the eyes, the head, the moustache, the cheeks. It doesn't favour him."

Blome believes he has been the victim of narrow-mindedness and racism. "I don't think the people of Rocky Mount have any public art. They have a different mentality to, say, what you might find in a city where they are used to the idea of art.

"In Rocky Mount, this statue is - number one - political and the idea of it being a forum for art is a much lower priority."

Blome, 37, admits that his statue is an interpretation of King, based on a photograph of him standing behind a desk. He believes the face is contemplative.

"I don't think it's arrogant unless you think the photograph is arrogant," he said. "I don't take this personally but I am very sad for what it says about America."

The artist has written to Rocky Mount city council requesting the return of the statue if an alternative location cannot be found, rather than breaking it up and selling it as scrap.

He said: "Just because they don't like the statue, it does not mean it is not a work of art."