Maya Lin Lets Healing Waters Flow Over Her Civil Rights Memorial
As is her habit, architect Maya Lin was shying away from the crowds—and the limelight. Hidden from view behind the tinted windows of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., she watched as hundreds of visitors streamed into the plaza below for the unveiling of her memorial to the martyrs of the civil rights movement. “I like standing back quietly,” says Lin. “You create your message, and then it is out there on its own.” Lin’s message was not lost upon the widows and children, mothers and fathers, who came to Montgomery early this month. They reached out to touch the names of loved ones carved into the somber black-granite disk; their faces, mirrored in the sheen of water flowing across its surface, were wet with tears. “I’m so thankful,” said Sarah Salter, 56, whose husband, Willie Edwards, was killed by Ku Klux Klansmen in Montgomery in 1957. “At last he’s being recognized.”
It was nine years ago that Lin, then an unheralded senior at Yale University, submitted the winning design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. After its dedication in 1982, angry veterans at first denounced the stark, V-shaped granite wall as a “black gash of shame,” but the memorial soon became the most visited monument in the capital as millions of Americans touched—and were touched by—the carved names of more than 58,000 war dead.
Now, with her new Civil Rights Memorial, which similarly compels visitors to trace out names with their fingertips, Lin, 30, has once again created an architectural masterpiece that evokes the pain and pride of one of the nation’s most tumultuous passages. Says Morris Dees, the executive director of the Southern Poverty Law Center: “She can capture the essence of a moment of history with simple forms that evoke the widest range of emotions.”
That was precisely what the law center had in mind when Lin was asked to design the memorial early last year. Lin, who had returned to Yale for graduate studies in architecture and had begun working in New York City in 1986, was intrigued by the challenge. Too young to remember the civil rights era firsthand, she immersed herself in research for months and was particularly struck by a passage from the Book of Amos favored and adapted by Martin Luther King Jr.: “… until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” “Then boom, within two weeks, I had the idea,” she says. Using the quote as her theme, she designed a 12-foot-diameter granite disk inscribed with the names of 40 freedom fighters as well as landmark events of the civil rights movement; behind it, a black-granite wall nearly 9 feet high and 39 feet long, also covered by a veil of water, and inscribed with the biblical passage. “I’m trying to make people become involved with the piece on all levels,” says Lin, “with the touch and sound of the water, with the words, with the memories.”
At the dedication, relatives of the 40 martyrs, along with such civil rights luminaries as Rosa Parks and Julian Bond, were deeply moved. Mamie Till Mobley, 67, whose son, Emmett Till, was murdered in Money, Miss., 34 years ago for allegedly whistling at a white woman, wrapped Lin in an emotional embrace. Mary Birchard, 62, whose husband, William Moore, was killed in Attala, Ala., in 1963 while marching alone to protest segregation, brushed back tears with a damp handkerchief. “I’m real grateful,” she said. “No one was ever indicted for his murder. I’m still hoping for justice.” Lin’s memorial seemed also to have helped heal some fresher wounds: After the ceremony the Reverend Ralph Abernathy walked across the dais and embraced 33-year-old Martin Luther King III—the first time the two had met since publication of Abernathy’s controversial book describing the sexual liaisons of King’s father.
Lin insists that this memorial will be her last. She is currently working on a personal sculpture project and is most excited about designing an addition to her childhood home in Athens, Ohio, for her recently widowed mother, Julia. “I began the decade and ended it with memorials,” she says. “I feel fortunate to have done them, and I’m closing the door with a happy feeling.”
—David Grogan, Linda Kramer in Montgomery