WASHINGTON - The selection of a Chinese sculptor to carve a three-story monument to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the National Mall is creating a split over just what part of King's legacy should be celebrated.
King promoted peace and understanding among all nationalities, but he fought to win particular opportunities for black Americans, juxtaposing the plight of an oppressed people against a message of freedom and democracy.
A loose-knit but growing group of critics is charging that a black artist - or at least an American - should have been chosen to create what will be a permanent icon between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials in the nation's capital. They have been joined by human rights advocates who say King would have abhorred the Chinese government's record on religious and civil liberty.
'They keep saying King was for everyone. I keep telling people, 'No, King wasn't for everyone. King was for fairness and justice,' said Gilbert Young, a black painter from Atlanta who has launched a Web site and a petition drive to try to change the project.
'I believe that black artists have the right to interpret ourselves first,' he said. '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 United States, organizers said, and the overall project is being directed by a black-owned architecture firm.
The foundation also points to King's preaching - in a quote that will be incorporated into the monument - that to achieve peace, humans must 'transcend race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.'
'The bottom line is Dr. King's message that we should judge a person not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character,' said Harry Johnson, the foundation's president and CEO. 'In this situation, we're talking about the artistic character.'