Investigation Launched Over MLK Statue

Front Page / May. 22, 2008 12:00am EDT

By Sandy Vondrasek
Investigation Launched Over MLK Statue By Sandy Vondrasek

Investigation Launched Over MLK Statue By Sandy Vondrasek

It turns out that carving granite—tough and "tedious" work—is excellent training for tackling issues that seem too massive, too remote, and too far along for any individual to ever change.

Chelsea native and granite carver Clint Button said this week, in a telephone interview from his South Carolina home, that persistent efforts by him and others have—finally—brought new traction and credibility for the "King Is Ours" (KIO) movement.

The grassroots movement, launched early in 2007 by African-American artist Gilbert Young of Georgia, is fighting to have a $100-million granite memorial for Martin Luther King, Jr. made in the U.S.

In 2006, the non-profit foundation charged with overseeing the creation of the MLK Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. contracted out the centerpiece of the memorial—a 28-foot-high sculpture of Dr. King—to a Chinese sculptor known for his sculptures of the late Mao Zedong.

Button—who learned to carve granite in the Barre sheds and now has his own studio in South Carolina—joined the movement last summer primarily to fight for the future of the granite industry in the U.S. Like other industries, it is being threatened by a flood of cheaper imports from overseas.

Button, 41, and Young brought their protest to Barre last fall, with a press conference at the statue of the Italian stonecutter that was hosted by the Barre Granite Association.

Since then Button, Gilbert Young, and others in the KIO movement have kept working tirelessly on their cause, despite an apparent unwillingness by most elected officials, national media, and high-profile African-Americans to touch the MLK Memorial issue.

News that the Rock of Ages quarry laid off 50 workers this winter only spurred him on, Button said.

Over the past six months, working on his own time and out-of-pocket, Button has been able to bring the support of the entire U.S. granite industry to the KIO cause. His efforts included a January banquet address at the annual convention in Baltimore of the Memorial Builders of North America. After his talk, the group formed a task force to investigate the MLK memorial outsourcing.

Federal Investigation

What’s more, Button has, single-handedly, sparked a federal investigation into the fiscal practices of the non-profit MLK Foundation.

An investigation by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of the Interior was initiated in March, after Button filed a detailed, 10-page complaint with the DOI alleging that the MLK Foundation broke federal law by failing to put the monument project out to bid, and by failing to maintain the financial transparency required of 501 (c)(3) non-profit organizations.

Because the MLK Foundation received $10 million in federal money, Button explained, it should have put project components out to bid. Button, with his extensive granite industry contacts, was able to document in his complaint that not a single U.S. company ever had an opportunity to bid.

About a month after filing the report, Button said this week, one "Agent Floyd" from the DOI met with him to hear his story. The investigator has gone on to interview others, including Gilbert Young, and African-American sculptor Ed Dwight, who was initially selected to be the "artist of record" for the Dr. King sculpture.

Button said it will probably be several months before the investigation is concluded; the DOI is not commenting on it the meantime.

Button’s complaint, which he forwarded to The Herald, is a highly researched and carefully documented report that shows a familiarity with pertinent federal law and with the history of the MLK project. Button’s report also did the inspector general’s office the courtesy of providing the contact addresses, phone numbers, and emails of parties on all sides of the issues, plus URLs and websites referencing congressional acts, federal law, and news media coverage, as they relate to the MLK project.

Did a guy "who grew up milking cows" in Chelsea, and who worked as an executive chef before he turned to carving granite write that report by himself?

"Yeah, I actually did," Button laughed.

Button has, in fact, been developing the information he compiled in the complaint over the past eight months. His research into federal mandates affecting non-profits got a big boost via the support of a nationally-known "501 (c)(3) and non-profit guru" who studied MLK Foundation information.

Button said she told him, "This is wrong, and this is wrong, and you have to file a complaint."

Initially, KIO founder Gilbert Young was to file the complaint with the DOI.

"Gilbert’s an idea person; he’s creative, he likes to paint," Button explained. "Carving granite is a lot of tedious work. And I like to understand how things work and why."

News of the inspector general’s investigation has been carried by national media. So has news that the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which must approve the project before construction begins, has objected to the Dr. King model as being too rigid, and too much like heroic statuary in totalitarian countries.

According to Button, the design for the Dr. King being worked on in China is—except for the head—almost identical to existing statues of Mao.

"What they’re doing is illegal and what they’re doing is wrong," Button said of the actions of the MLK Foundation. "If I did what they did, I would be in jail. It doesn’t matter if you are blue, white, green or yellow—everybody has to follow the same rules. These folks, what they’re doing is putting us out of work."

The King Is Ours fight, for Button, Young, and others, has been time consuming, "extremely expensive in many ways, and difficult—there isn’t a book on how you do this," Button said.

"No matter who did what specifically, King Is Ours is the basis of this fight and is demonstrative of what can still be done by a few honest and courageous people in America," Button said.

It’s about "fighting the good fight," as one retired Barre granite carver told Button, back in November.

"I just want people to realize they can do it," Button added.

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