The opening ceremony for the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial has been postponed as Hurricane Irene closes in on the East Coast, but when it does open, the monument will do so under a different cloud as some point out that the way it was constructed violates some of the core principles for which King fought and died. While often overshadowed by his civil rights legacy, King was an outspoken defender of labor rights and was supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee when he was assassinated. But his memorial was built, in part, using free labor imported from China.
The foundation behind the memorial, which deserves tremendous praise for successfully pulling off the monumental project, controversially selected Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin — known for his bust of Mao Zedong — to be the lead sculptor on the project. Couldn’t the foundation have “chosen a black American, let alone an American,” critics ask?
More egregiously, despite promises from the organization to use local unionized labor for the project, the sculpture was completed using workers imported from China working for nothing but “national pride.” Last September, the foundation promised in a statement:
“[We] will employ skilled craft workers from the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers (BAC) to work with Master Lei Yixin, Sculptor of Record, to complete the assembly and installation,”
They eventually reneged on that vow, despite a plethora of unemployed skilled stonemasons in U.S. “Why do they need to come over to do the work when there are so many people here who can do it?” Scott Garvin, president of the Washington area union asked the Washington Post’s Michael Ruane. “It’s kind of a thumb in the eye,” he added. The local BAC chapter’s “membership has dropped in the past three years from 2,000 to 850 because of a decline in building projects.”
The fact that the Chinese workers were not being paid was only discovered when the BAC sent an investigator to determine if they were being exploited. While they were given room and board and hoped to be paid upon returning to China, using free labor to construct Kings monument seems to fly in the face of what he stood for. “It is a crime for people who live in this rich nation to receive starvation wages,” King told the Memphis workers.
The foundation has largely avoided commenting on the issue. And Harry Johnson, CEO of the MLK memorial foundation, “said there has been NO scandal, no drama in building” of the monument.
When confronted by the union over this fact, the foundation seemed to cynically use King’s principles as a shield, saying, “We strongly believe that we should not exclude anyone from working on this project simply because of their religious beliefs, social background or country of origin.”
A request for comment from the foundation was not immediately returned.