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Dr. King’s message for Asia

by Curtis S. Chin

With Chinese tourists making some 83 million international trips in 2012 — up from 10 million in 2000, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization — and now often displacing Japanese as the biggest spenders from Asia, wouldn’t it be nice if they and others took home from their next trip to Washington something more than a suitcase full of souvenirs and designer goods?

For both American and Asian travelers to the U.S. capital this month, the name Martin Luther King Jr. is likely to be of particular interest as will the statue and surrounding plaza built to honor him in this city of monuments.

King is of course the iconic African-American civil rights leader who fell to an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968. The late Nobel Peace Prize laureate is back in the news this August as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.

That speech — delivered to more than 250,000 people on Aug. 28 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the landmark 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” — was a defining moment of the American civil rights movement and for King. His is a name that Asian students of world history, whether in Tokyo or Beijing, should also know.

But how about the name Lei Yixin?

Lei is the sculptor from Hunan province in China who was chosen, though not without controversy, to create the 10-meter- tall stone statue of the late civil rights leader that stands at the center of a $120 million Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, opening two years ago.

He too is back in the news as repairs, under Lei’s watchful eyes, have been made to remove one of two inscriptions from King that had been carved into the stone memorial. The now-removed inscription had appeared on the north face of the three-story statue and had been paired with a quote on the south face that reads, “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”

The offending inscription, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness,” was removed in early August, with work following to smooth out the stone where the quote once appeared. The inscription was a paraphrase of a quote from a sermon that King had delivered two months before he was assassinated in 1968, and its awkward shortening of what King had actually said was criticized for distorting the tone and meaning and making the civil right’s leader sound arrogant.

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” said King, at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. The complete quote continues, “Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

Imagine if a visit to the work of this once- obscure Chinese sculptor at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial were added to the itineraries of the throngs of Asian tourists — particularly from mainland China — now increasingly replacing the European and Japanese tourists of yesterday.

I found the Chinese characters for the sculptor’s name at the base of the statue of King during my own visit to the memorial.

From Thailand’s temples and shopping malls to Italy’s boutiques and ancient monuments, nations around the world are witnessing Asia’s, and particularly China’s economic rise, also in the form of tens of thousands of new visitors. Large numbers of Chinese who had once dreamed of traveling abroad now have the opportunity and money to do so, much as earlier decades saw Japanese and Korean tourists join the ranks of global travelers.

How fitting it would be if Lei’s sculpture were to help bring the late civil rights leaders’ messages of equality, social justice and empowerment to Asia and particularly to the growing number of China’s increasingly globe-trotting tourists, their fellow citizens and leaders, all in pursuit of the “Chinese dream.”

“I have a dream,” King preached from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington before a massive seated statue of President Abraham Lincoln, “that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ …

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Whether Atlanta or Beijing, or Bangkok or Yangon, King’s messages still have relevance today to everyday citizens still struggling for greater economic freedom and opportunity.

Beyond the all too many T-shirts, key chains and other items seemingly sourced from China for America’s gift shops or expensive luxury items from name-brand designer boutiques, let’s hope that King’s message of peace and empowerment is one added souvenir that is brought back by visitors to the U.S. to their own home countries everywhere.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is on the northwest shore of the Tidal Basin in Washington, across from the Jefferson Memorial and near the World War II Memorial.

Curtis S. Chin, managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, was U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank (2007-2010) under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.