Race row hits memorial for Martin Luther King

Calls for black sculptor to replace Chinese artist
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The Independent US

A place has been prepared for a monument to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr on the most hallowed ground in America. But the nature of that memorial is causing a dispute that threatens to sully the memory of a man renowned for his intent to unite people.

The rumpus is over the ethnicity of the sculptor who will carve the monu- ment. A Chinese sculptor has been chosen to carve a monument three storeys high on the National Mall in Washington, where it will be placed between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. But a loose-knit and growing group of critics is demanding that a black sculptor, or at least an American, should have been chosen. The protesters have been joined by human rights advocates who say King would have abhorred the Chinese government's record on religious and civil liberties.

Gilbert Young, a black painter from Atlanta who has launched a website and a petition to try to change the project, said: "I believe that black artists have the right to interpret ourselves first. If nobody steps up to the plate to do that, then certainly pass it along to someone else."

The memorial foundation directing the project seems surprised at the criticism. Ten of the 12 people on the committee that chose the sculptor, Lei Yixin, are black. Lei is working closely on the design with two black sculptors in the US, organisers said, and the overall project is being directed by a black-owned architectural firm.

Lei has carved monuments to many of China's national figures, including Mao Tse-tung. Ann Lao, a native of China now living in Los Angeles bristles at the human rights record of her home country and said King would never condone its policies. The granite used for the statue is likely to be mined by workers labouring in unsafe and unfair conditions, the human rights activist said.

Lao, Young and others plan to present their online petition to legislators in Washington next month in an effort to force the foundation to reconsider the project. The monument is scheduled to be completed in 2009. It was 44 years ago on Tuesday that Dr King delivered his "I have a dream..." speech.

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