- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 20, 2005

ROCKY MOUNT, N.C. — It was a laudable idea: build a park and raise a sculpture in honor of Martin Luther King in the place where he first told an audience, “I have a dream.” It has become a two-year-old nightmare from which Rocky Mount has yet to wake up.

The problem? City leaders and two sculptors have been unable to satisfy Rocky Mount’s collective memory of just what the civil rights leader looked like. King may be one of the most famous men of the 20th century, but memories of his face vary among his many admirers.

“How you perceive a person, especially a person such as Dr. King, depends on at what point in time and at what era in his life and in what medium you actually met him — if you met him as a minister in a church, if you met him as an activist on the street, or if he was sitting in a restaurant or at your dinner table,” said City Council member Lamont Wiggins.

And so the pedestal built to hold a larger-than-life bronze statue of King stands empty. The first attempt is wrapped in movers’ blankets and tucked in a corner of the municipal warehouse near a sign that reads: “Returned Merchandise.” The small clay model of the proposed replacement drew dozens of dismissive comments from people who viewed it last month.

“I have come to the conclusion that, regardless of what we do at this point, because of the magnitude of the dissension, there’s going to be any number of individuals that are going to vilify the final work,” Mr. Wiggins said.

Rocky Mount, a city of 56,000 about an hour east of Raleigh, prides itself on its association with King. On Nov. 27, 1962, he addressed 2,000 people in the gym of Booker T. Washington High School, using for the first time words he would rephrase in August 1963 in his famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

“And so, my friends of Rocky Mount, I have a dream tonight,” he said. “That one day, right here in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will meet at the table of brotherhood.”

A city-block-size memorial park near the school was proposed several years ago, to be anchored by a sculpture of King. In 2001, the city commissioned Chicago-based artist Erik Blome to create a 9-foot-tall “photorealistic” sculpture of King.

The $55,800 sculpture — financed by private donations — was placed on the pedestal several weeks before a dedication planned for July 2003. The reaction was immediate, intense and unhappy. The dedication was canceled.

“He looked like a white man painted black,” said Helen B. Gay, who had prepared and served dinner to King and his entourage after the speech four decades earlier.

Mr. Blome was taken aback. The pose had been inspired by a well-known photograph of King taken in 1962, though the artist had studied dozens of others. A model was displayed at the city’s Children’s Museum and pictures appeared in the local paper, although neither drew much attention.

That may have been the problem. None of the city leaders Mr. Blome invited to his Chicago studio came to see the work in progress. When the statue was unveiled in the park, it was the first time most had seen it. By then, short of hacking off and recasting the head, there was little that could be done to change it.

Mr. Blome blamed the City Council members for not including the public in the process earlier. “It doesn’t honor the person you’re honoring if you’re not garnering community support first. You don’t make something and hope they like it.”

After first asking Mr. Blome to stay on the job, the city decided to seek a new artist. Mr. Blome contends some in Rocky Mount, a city that is 56 percent black, thought he was a poor choice for the project because he is white. But the City Council picked another white man, Steven Whyte of Monterey, Calif., to sculpt a new statue.

“There are some people who would prefer a black artist and would feel more confident that a black artist would connect with the impression of the likeness,” said council member Angela R. Bryant, who is black. “But the experience throughout the country has been that that isn’t a guarantee.”

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