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Gary Younge
Artistic merit of Martin Luther King statue splits town as surely as racial divide

For on November 27 1962, a full seven months before he stood in Lincoln's shadow during the "March on Washington" and addressed the country, King delivered, in Rocky Mount's high school gym, one of the first renditions of his "I have a dream" speech.

Some people here remember it. And they want to make sure their children do not forget it. So a sculptor was found to build a statue to celebrate the man and his call for racial harmony.

But then everything started to go wrong. Residents in the black area where the statue was placed complained that it didn't look like him. The face wasn't quite right, the stance was haughty, the expression aloof. One even thought the pen he was carrying looked like an extra finger.

"I couldn't believe it," said 71-year-old Samuel Gray. "That's not Dr King. There's no likeness, none."

Then they found out the sculptor was white. To the statue's detractors race explained the artistic mistakes. "We need an artist who can relate," one resident, Kimberle Evans, told the New York Times.

To supporters of the statue, the racial point explained why others would disparage it so readily. But, either way, the work of art meant something to almost everyone. For the town council that meant trouble. Views on how to rectify the situation diverged, from the drastic (getting the sculptor to cut the head off and replace it with a better likeness or do the whole thing again) to the problematic (finding a black sculptor to do another).

Letters to the local paper ranged from demands it should be left as it was, to complaints that it should never have been erected in the first place. And while almost everybody has had an opinion, nobody has been keen to stump up the money it will cost to find a solution.

The sculptor, Eirk Blome, is philosophical, if piqued by the response. "With any piece of artwork there are going to be some people who don't like it. But this is not personal and it's not about the sculpture. It's about feelings that are understandable, about historical resentments built up over time."

You don't have to spend long in Rocky Mount to see what he means. The town may have been one of the first venues to host the dream speech, but it looks as though it may one of the last to actually experience the dream itself. Race divides the town as clearly as its railroad tracks. Rocky Mount may have only 56,000 residents but when it comes to living in racially segregated areas they all seem to know their place.

And by either poor luck or ill judgment the statue was built at a sensitive time in the town's demographic history. Thanks to the white flight to the suburbs, black people are now in the majority. City elections returned the first black majority to the city council last week, prompting the accusation that the dispute arose because of the white mayor trying to ingratiate himself with the local black leadership, which in turn is flexing its muscles.

But then there are others who walk up to the centrepiece of the 11-hectare park and come away disappointed. King stands staring with his arms folded and a pen in hand. Paving slabs spiral their way up to him, each inscribed with a part of hisdream speech or the address he gave the night before he was assassinated ("I've been to the mountain top ... and I've seen the promised land").

"It don't look like him," said Germaine, who is in his early 20s and came to see the statue with friends. "You can see it features him a little but it still don't feature him properly. I think it's something about his face." The sculptor being white makes no difference. "If the sculptor was black it still wouldn't look like Martin Luther King," he says.

But to his friend, Kevin, it mattered: "They can't do it right because they don't know our struggle." Donald, another friend, said: "We don't even know our struggle. We weren't around back then. And bless God we weren't."

Blome admits the sculpture is challenging. The Illinois sculptor has fashioned several historical black figures, including Rosa Parks (arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger), and Thurgood Marshall, the first black supreme court judge in the US.

He also previously completed a statue of King in Milwaukee, for which he won an award. "Most statues of King have him marching or holding his hand up and orating. I wanted to make something that shows his quiet strength and intellectual side. So he's not standing in a way most people remember. But he didn't spend most of his time marching and speaking. It's a sculpture - not a death mask."

The city council decided to erect a statue in 1997, and noticed Blome's work on a website. His 45cm (17in) model was then displayed in the city hall and arts centre for more than a year. No one said a thing and a city-appointed commission with a majority of black members approved the design and paid him $56,000 (£31,000) to proceed.

When the criticism began, the mayor appointed a commission to investigate. The floodbanks opened and Blome's public sculpture truly became a piece of public art. At one meeting a businessman offered a $7,000 deposit, with a further $28,000 on completion, for a more realistic image of King to be made at the Guangzhou sculpture academy in China. "Satisfaction guaranteed," declared Ken Washington. "If it doesn't look like MLK, you don't got to pay for it."

But the commission is considering asking Blome to make another statue (if only they can find the fee). "They're going to employ the same sculptor to do the same thing again but with the whole town involved," Blome said wearily. "As a white guy stepping into this it's got danger written all over it. I think it would be pretty lame if I walked away right now."

The other thing that would be lame, he says, would be for the commission to appoint a black artist: "Why not just give me a list of the races I'm allowed to do - it's the opposite of King's message."

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