The Perfect Statue of Dr. King, a North Carolina Town's Dream (and Frustration)

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They agree on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s place in history. They agree on his important connection to their town, one of the first places he uttered the words "I have a dream."

What the residents of Rocky Mount, N.C., cannot seem to agree on is the shape of Dr. King's ears or the size of his feet.

The town, 50 miles east of Raleigh, has already taken down one $56,000 statute of Dr. King and may soon vote to jettison one by a different, but equally respected, artist. The City Council voted unanimously yesterday to give that artist, Steven Whyte of Monterey, Calif., one last chance to meet their expectations before they cancel his contract, said Peter Varney, assistant city manager.

"The Council's feeling is that it's still not quite there," Mr. Varney said.

Some see the problem as more than simply aesthetic: they argue that only a black sculptor could capture Dr. King's spirit, and both of the artists hired so far have been white.

The controversy began two years ago, when the town, about 55 percent black and 45 percent white, decided to commemorate Dr. King's November 1962 visit, a trip that culminated in a stirring speech at the local high school. Some scholars believe that speech may have been the first time Dr. King used the phase, "I have a dream."

Prompted by the 40th anniversary of the 1963 march on Washington, business leaders spent over a year raising money to build a park and a statue to honor that chapter of the town's history. The City Council commissioned a larger-than-life sculpture by a renowned Chicago artist, Erik Blome.

Public reaction to the finished work was swift and harsh. Many said that a white sculptor had portrayed Dr. King as arrogant and that the figure looked nothing like the way they remembered him.

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