Across the Tidal Basin

10th in a series of sights and recollections of DC in non-sequential order

Harry Welty

New Memorials are a constant along our Nation’s Mall. Near the end our our tour I got to look at the new addition I most wanted to see as the sun set and lights winked on.

The towering King who clasps his “I have a Dream Speech” in his hand was unveiled in August of 2011. MLK’s stern visage struck me from the beginning as bold and appropriate for a man who faced death every day of his life. That it was carved by a Chinese sculptor at a time when there was amity between our nations seemed fitting too.

The Asian eye caught King perfectly. Its placement on the Tidal Basin took my breath away.

My only spring trip to Washington took place a few years after the birth of our daughter Keely, whose sons were now following her footsteps to the Capitol. On that March visit we caught one of the Capital’s most fetching displays. The thousand cherry trees given the nation by Japan long before we fought each other in the Second World War flower simultaneously.

They were in magnificent bloom on my daughter’s first visit. I put her on a cherry branch below the pink effusion for a photo. My timing couldn’t have been better. That night a torrential rain knocked them all off.

Those cherry trees survived our war as I hope the King statue will survive our tense new relationship with China.

Our nation’s capital has known many periods of such tension. During the Civil War the Basin was little more than a morass of muddy malarial wetlands where Union troops bivouacked near the Lincoln White House. Of course the President’s children couldn’t help but visit the camps and the dashing men in blue who were  tenting there to protect their father and the union.

And in those pestilential camps Lincoln’s favorite, Eddy, caught typhoid fever and died in 1862 leaving his stricken father no time to grieve as he labored to save the nation.

I don’t know what the planners of the King Memorial had in mind but I found my answer to that question in the memorial’s placement. King is hidden as you enter from the Lincoln Memorial. He is emerging from a monolith of stone. As you approach you can only see a narrow view of the Tidal Basin. As you pass through its corridor Doctor King emerges from his Biblical mountain, arms crossed staring hard across the Basin. In his line of sight is the memorial to our third president who was, more importantly, the author of our Declaration of Independence.

In the second of two photos above you see the backs of my grandsons staring at the Jefferson Memorial. King is behind them looking over their shoulders. From this angle the memorial’s columns hide a standing Jefferson.

The walls of his memorial have many of his most famous quotations carved into marble. Of these none is more important than the foundation of the Declaration of Independence on the southwest wall. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”

I have little doubt that the sculptor, Lei Yixin, studied King and the setting and knew full well that our third president and his words would lay within the gaze of his subject. Jefferson’s words are the ones Martin Luther King championed till his martyr’s death.

Jefferson lived to a ripe old age, along with the words he betrayed for the rest of his life. His words have outlived him.

Lafayette, the Marquis de La Fayette, the heroic French officer who served Washington returned to France sure that America’s rise hailed a new dawn for the world. Years later the Marquis would express regret for having fought for America in the name of freedom and liberty. He grieved,  “I would never have drawn my sword in the cause of America, if I could have conceived that thereby I was founding a land of slavery.”

My Grandfather, George Robb, a war hero himself, led black soldiers fighting in French trenches during the First World War. You may recall the doughboys call to arms, “Lafayette, we are here!” I always knew that my Grandfather was not a fan of Jefferson but can only speculate as to the reason.

I know this. George Robb wrote with pride about his father Thomas who called himself a “black republican.” That was in defiance of the Southern slur for abolitionists. The slur was that era’s “n - - - -  lover.”

I suspect my grandfather’s judgment of Jefferson was simple. He was a hypocrite!

The King who faces the Tidal Basin wrote a speech which predicts a day when black children and white children can live together. It's little wonder that he looks hard at the place where our nation’s hypocrisy began. God knows when that day will come.

Our recent president, who hopes to return to the White House after his 2021 defeat, once made a grudging 90-second trip to the King Memorial after being criticized for ignoring it. Perhaps that’s no surprise from a man who fought the Justice Department when they tried to make him rent his apartments to black Americans and who used his wealth to buy full page ads calling for the execution of five black adolescents for a crime none of them had committed.

At least Jefferson used pretty words.

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