The question of a memorial’s appropriateness as a tribute to its subject has become a hot topic of discussion since the unveiling of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial. Everything from the massive size of the MLK statue to the selection of the quotations inscribed in stone have faced scrutiny, with some critics arguing that the memorial is not a fitting tribute to the United States’ most widely revered civil rights leader.
Commemorations have been much on my mind recently as I’ve been developing a new project on memorials to Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt has been memorialized endlessly since his death in 1919, most famously on Mount Rushmore. TR also has a monument in Washington, DC–Theodore Roosevelt Island in the Potomac River. Although perhaps the least visited of the presidential memorials in the city, it offers, I believe, the most fitting tribute to its subject. A site where visitors can hike nature trails and observe local flora and fauna, the memorial reminds us of the twenty-sixth president’s most enduring legacy: his conservationism.
I have not gotten a chance to visit the MLK memorial yet, so I will reserve judgment. I will say, however, that if it encourages Americans to reflect on the tortured history of race and racism in this country then it is accomplishing something immensely significant. Whatever we do to memorialize Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on this day, let us not forget that history.