A Portland task force rejected a proposal for a memorial to the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., leaving the city’s search for a way to honor the civil rights leader up in the air.
The rejected proposal led by principal designer Robert Katz of Augusta was the sole finalist remaining for the project. Katz, a sculptor and professor of art at the University of Maine at Augusta, had previously presented to the committee in November and took feedback from that meeting to update and redesign the proposal.
The Katz team was one of two finalists scheduled to present to the city’s Martin Luther King Recognition Task Force, which must send a recommendation to the City Council. The other finalist, TJD&A Landscape Architecture, had to drop out of consideration. In a letter to the city, the group cited an injury to the sculptor that would limit his mobility.
A proposal from Ironwood Landscape was also considered last fall, but the committee opted to not move it forward.
Despite Katz being the only remaining finalist, members of the task force last week were not enthusiastic about the proposal.
The Rev. Kenneth Lewis, co-chairman of the committee, said not enough change was displayed in Katz’s revamped proposal.
“For me, there are too many elements that miss for me, and so this doesn’t work for me,” he said. “So I would not vote for this to be sent to the council.”
Councilor Jill Duson, the other co-chair, summed up that there was no enthusiasm on the task force for the proposal. She said she will have to talk with the council to see what the next steps are, and gauge what the tolerance level is “to keep moving forward with a proposal to do an MLK memorial.”
Duson said while creating a memorial had been a goal of hers, she didn’t want to make a memorial just for the sake of having it.
“This memorial has a real personal connection for me,” she said, “and this particular rendition does not.”
The task force was appointed to find a way to recognize the life and achievements of King, whether by naming a city street, park or public space after him.
The city has tried unsuccessfully in the past to rename landmarks for King. For example, there was a push a few years ago to rename Franklin Street as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. That move was backed by a city subcommittee, but the proposed change was opposed by city residents.
The task force, formed after that setback, then settled on having a memorial in an open area along Bayside Trail in the West Bayside neighborhood.
The city has allocated $100,000 from sales of seized property for this memorial, and any further funding would need to be raised. The city issued a request for qualifications last spring for interested designers and eventually whittled the applicants down to the three finalists.
Katz told the task force his design was not meant to “awe visitors,” but rather to honor King and inspire thought, education, and reflection. To do so, he said it focused on a word that was essential to King and to Portland: Welcome.
Katz said the proposed memorial had four distinct features.
The first was a reflection garden, with panels describing visual metaphors in the memorial, as well as providing a timeline of King’s life. The garden would have a stone path leading to it, and would be full of flowers, trees, and shrubs, “making a space for reflection,” he said.
Katz also said there would be a solitary chair in the garden, with “I have a dream” etched into it. The chair represents King’s vision for unity living on. There would also be 12 quotes from different people on blocks of granite in the garden.
The second feature is a 90-foot amphitheater. Katz said the amphitheater would seat 70 people comfortably, and be made from 40 tons of granite, which has already been donated for the memorial.
The third feature is a welcoming table, divided into two sections, reminding visitors that “democracy remains fractured.” The table sections are connected by a bridge component, suggesting the fracture can be healed.
The final feature would be a soundscape, with nine small raised platforms. The platforms will have information for visitors to access via smartphones or at home on a computer, and will have audio from historical events, such as the Montgomery bus boycott, the march on Washington and the Selma voting rights movement.
Katz said this would create a “living memorial” instead of a static one.