Outside of the Georgia State Capitol, there is a monument of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It’s there to commemorate King’s history and the impact the Civil Rights movement had on our city, which served as a hub during this era. The day it was unveiled, people gathered in solidarity and since then, it has stood in front as a symbol for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. Or so, that what it’s meant to do. What it actually does is show how even decades after King’s death, white legislators didn’t deem a monument for him necessary until 2017, when the statue was unveiled. For years prior to this, there were arguments and debates that showed how people in power were truly against this statue from the beginning. People today would hardly consider MLK as a controversial figure, so the question remains, why was it so hard to get a statue of him in front of the Capitol? Does it even belong there?
As mentioned, MLK isn’t controversial now. Maurice Hobson says it best, “King’s legacy has fallen prey to exploitation and capitalism and suffered a whitewashing.” His history is told to people in a way that doesn’t expose his advocacy against poverty and war or his socialist views. The Civil Rights Era wasn’t 100 years ago, many of our state legislators were alive to see this movement happen. In fact, it’s safe to say that many government officials today were against MLK and have to live with that embarrassment or shame. Embarrassment/shame is what I want to believe that prevented this statue from being built for years. But I also believe it’s the continuous resistance of people with power to encourage any form of rebellion or revolution. MLK stood for change, advocacy, revolution, things that threaten the fragile structures of power that keep legislators with a job.
There are several MLK statues, murals, and monuments all over the country, but none stand out the way this one does. Its placement is truly one of the most ironic that exists. In the About South podcast, Calinda Lee mentions that Atlanta culture is heavily influenced by its desire to not be associated with the south. Atlanta is an exception, a place where the stereotypes of southern culture simply do not exist. Atlantans’ desire to distance themselves from that culture feeds into the dangerous idea of Atlanta Exceptionalism. Similar to Southern Exceptionalism, it can create a false narrative for the region and its history. It is why walking through the doors of the Georgia State Capitol is like walking into a different city in rural Georgia. Atlantans are used to this one idea that Atlanta is different from the south yet the moment one goes through security, the culture is lost. As someone who would walk from the Capitol back to Georgia State for class, the difference extraordinary. Yet, it shows that Atlanta is in the south and its not exempt from the South’s history, or America’s history. It’s a reminder that Atlanta is different, but it is not separate. The MLK statue still stands but its purpose isn’t to remember the icon that he really was, instead to appropriate and hijack his legacy. (Hobson, 2018)
Hobson, Maurice J. “The King of Atlanta: Martin Luther King Jr. and Public Memory.” AAIHS, 3 Apr. 2018, www.aaihs.org/the-king-of-atlanta-martin-luther-king-jr-and-public-memory/.
“To Atlanta, With Love.” Soundcloud, 2019, soundcloud.com/about-south/as-s04e10-to-atlanta-with-love.
Horvath, Kessarin. “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Statue Unveiled at the State Capitol.” Georgia Senate Press Office, 29 Aug. 2017, senatepress.net/dr-martin-luther-king-jr-statue-unveiled-at-the-state-capitol.html.
Really thought-provoking post — strange to think that Newcastle upon Tyne in England unveiled a statue of MLK the same year that Atlanta finally got around to erecting an official civic memorial (though I guess Morehouse and maybe other non-government sites in Atlanta had statues earlier?). There’s a great article waiting to happen on MLK statues around the world, that mixes history, politics, urban planning, heritage studies, and art/architecture!