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Will the new Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial really help convey his message?

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By Sarah Ackley. Cross-posted at Tikkun Daily.

In the arena of social change, I am continually confronted with the question of to what extent symbolic change matters. Sometimes when we seek change that is partially or largely symbolic, we loose sight of the broader issue. For example, legalizing gay marriage doesn't ensure equality for GLBT individuals and families, nor does a Supreme Court mandate to desegregate schools ensure that everyone has access to educational opportunities. Symbolic change has the potential to fundamentally change the ways in which we think and talk about social issues and it can empower us to keep working. At the same time, it can make us complacent because we feel good about having accomplished really very little.

Aerial view of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. Photo courtesy of mlkmemorialnews.org.

Aerial view of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. Photo courtesy of mlkmemorialnews.org.

Of great symbolic importance, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial is currently being constructed on the National Mall. Having raised $106 million of the $120 million required to complete construction, the dedication of the memorial is tentatively scheduled for the fall of 2011. Instead of memorializing another dead, white war hero, "The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial will be the first on the National Mall to recognize a person of color and a man of peace, not a president or a veteran of war," according to the press release on the monument.

The goal of the monument is of course to honor Dr. King and his great contribution to our nation. But more than that, in attempting to create a space to share the spirit of love, freedom, and peace, the broader goal is to inspire new generations to continue Dr. King's unfinished work. Back in 2006, Barack Obama (at that time a senator) spoke at the memorial's groundbreaking: "For all the progress we have made, there are times when the land of our dreams recedes from us -- when we are lost, wandering spirits, content with our suspicions and our angers, our long-held grudges and petty disputes, our frantic diversions and tribal allegiances. And yet, by erecting this monument, we are reminded that this different, better place beckons us, and that we will find it not across distant hills or within some hidden valley, but rather we will find it somewhere in our hearts."

In honor of this year's Martin Luther King Day, several Tikkun bloggers reminded us of both Dr. King's humanity and of his radical, multi-facted message (see here, here, and here). Going beyond the "I Have a Dream" speech, the memorial too aims to convey the breadth of Dr. King's work. On the memorial's crescent-shaped-stone wall, quotes from many of Dr. King's speeches, sermons, and public addresses will remind us that Dr. King's deep spirituality inspired him to speak out about injustice, much of which remains in our own time.

The extent to which a national monument can really convey the radicalism of Dr. King's message and lead a new generation to question and dismantle this country's oppressive institutions remains to be seen. Personally, I'm skeptical that the monument, which is congress-sanctioned and corporately sponsored, will convey Dr. King's call to resist capitalism, U.S. Imperialism, and fundamentalism.

On the other hand, it is certainly no small step that our country is honoring a man dedicated to peace, and not war, on the National Mall. And if the monument's builders really do succeed in creating "a space to share the spirit of love, freedom, and peace," some who visit it may be inspired to seek positive change.

Find out more about the monument here.

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