The problem? City leaders and two sculptors have been unable so far to satisfy Rocky Mount's collective memory of just what the civil rights leader looked like. King may be one of the most famous men of the 20th century, but memories of his face vary among his many admirers.
"How you perceive a person, especially a person such as Dr. King, depends on at what point in time and at what era in his life and in what medium you actually met him -- if you met him as a minister in a church, if you met him as an activist on the street, or if he was sitting in a restaurant or at your dinner table," city council member Lamont Wiggins said.
And so the pedestal built to hold a larger-than-life bronze statue of King stands empty. The first attempt is wrapped in movers' blankets and tucked in a corner of the municipal warehouse near a sign that reads, "Returned Merchandise." The small clay model of its proposed replacement drew dozens of dismissive comments from people who viewed it last month.
"I have come to the conclusion that, regardless of what we do at this point, because of the magnitude of the dissension there's going to be any number of individuals that are going to vilify the final work," Wiggins said.
Rocky Mount, a city of 56,000 about an hour east of Raleigh, prides itself on its association with King. On Nov. 27, 1962, he addressed 2,000 people in the gym of Booker T. Washington High School, using for the first time words he would rephrase the following August in his famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
"And so, my friends of Rocky Mount, I have a dream tonight," he said. "That one day, right here in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will meet at the table of brotherhood."
A city block-sized memorial park near the school was proposed several years ago, to be anchored by a sculpture of King. In 2001, the city commissioned Chicago-based artist Erik Blome to create a 9-foot-tall "photorealistic" sculpture of King.
The $55,800 sculpture -- financed by private donations -- was placed on the pedestal several weeks before a dedication planned for July 2003. The reaction was immediate, intense and unhappy. The dedication was canceled.
"He looked like a white man painted black. He did!" said Helen B. Gay, who had prepared and served dinner to King and his entourage after the speech four decades earlier
The pose -- arms folded, legs apart -- seemed arrogant, some said. Others complained that the face, gazing into the distance, resembled King only vaguely.
Blome was taken aback. The pose had been inspired by a well-known photograph of King taken in 1962, though he studied dozens of others. A model was displayed at the city's Children's Museum and pictures appeared in the local paper, although neither drew much attention.
That may have been the problem. None of the city leaders Blome invited to his Chicago studio came to see the work in progress. When the statue first appeared in the park, it was the first time most had seen it. By then, short of hacking off and recasting the head, there was little that could be done to change it.
Blome blamed the city council members for not bringing the public into the process earlier. "It doesn't honor the person you're honoring if you're not garnering community support first. You don't make something and hope they like it."
After first asking Blome to stay on the job, the city decided to seek a new artist. Blome contends some in Rocky Mount, a city that's 56 percent black, felt he was a poor choice for the project because he is white. But the city council picked another white man, Steven Whyte of Monterey, Calif., to start over on a whole new statue.
"There are some people who would prefer a black artist and would feel more confident that a black artist would connect with the impression of the likeness," said council member Angela R. Bryant, who is black. "But the experience throughout the country has been that that isn't a guarantee."
Learning from its past error, the city put a key caveat in Whyte's contract. It will pay him $85,000 -- $50,000 in taxpayer dollars and the rest in private donations -- but in increments as he completes stages of the project. So far he has made $15,000; a $20,000 payment is due in January if the city approves a full-size model of the statue's head and shoulders.
To get early public opinion, the clay model of Whyte's statue was put on display at City Hall for most of October. Though fewer than 250 people commented, the reviews were mostly negative. "Not much better than the first one," read one of the more charitable.
Whyte has agreed to incorporate some changes suggested in the comments, adjusting the nose, ears and hairline. He also plans to visit Rocky Mount in the coming months -- perhaps during the January holiday weekend marking King's birthday -- to work on the head-and-shoulders model in public.
That eagerness to involve the public in the project was part of his appeal, and Whyte is confident he can soothe, if not completely satisfy, most of the audience. "It's something that I've always done," the British-born sculptor said.
City leaders hope the good-faith effort will win support, even if artistic opinions are never reconciled.
"I just hope they can come to some conclusion and end it all," Gay said. "Dr. King's image and what he stood for means more than a lot of controversy over a statue."
Copyright 2022 by Capitol Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.