A City Council committee has rejected its only remaining candidate to build a memorial to Martin Luther King Jr., leaving Portland again without a plan to commemorate the civil rights icon after more than a decade of trying.

The Martin Luther King Memorial Selection Committee last week voted down a proposal that members felt did not adequately represent King and his legacy. The other finalist withdrew for health reasons.

Dr. Martin Luther King in New York on April 15, 1967. Associated Press

Committee staffer and city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said city leaders were still figuring out what to do next.

“We don’t know next steps yet,” she said in an email Sunday.

The committee’s co-chairs – City Councilor Jill Duson and the Rev. Kenneth Lewis of the Green Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church in Portland – plan to discuss their next moves with City Manager Jon Jennings and the council’s Sustainability & Transportation Committee, Grondin said. Attempts over the weekend to reach Duson and Lewis for interviews were unsuccessful.

At a meeting last Tuesday, the committee listened to a presentation from a team led by Robert Katz, an artist and art professor at the University of Maine at Augusta. The Katz team proposed a quiet glade along the Bayside Trail that would evoke a sense of “welcoming.” It would have featured a table for community members to sit around, split in the middle to signify continued racial inequality, as well as an amphitheater for community and civil rights events.

The other finalist, a team of TJD&A Landscape Architects and Planners of Yarmouth and Evan Haynes, a sculptor from South Freeport, had already withdrawn. A letter to the committee dated Jan. 29 said Haynes suffered an injury that left him with mobility challenges.

In a video recording of last week’s meeting, Katz and his architect and historian consultants said they wanted their design to stand in contrast to the King memorial in Washington, D.C., a 30-foot statue of the civil rights leader carved into an enormous hunk of white granite.

That memorial may be impressive, but it also puts King “on a pedestal,” said Katz, who preferred to focus on King’s words and deeds, and on the movement that surrounded him. Rather than the civil rights leader’s image, their design featured an empty chair engraved with some of his most famous sayings.

This vision proved to be a sticking point for the committee and its advisers.

“It’s not a memorial to Dr. King,” Marcia Minter, a local artist and consultant to the committee, said in deliberations afterward. “Now it’s about everybody who was involved in the civil rights movement and what it stands for.”

Minter said that, from the perspective of a person of color, “sometimes you need to see yourself. Sometimes we need that grandeur, we need that opportunity to kind of revel for a moment.”

“Fix the table, nix the chair and show me King,” Lewis said, summing up objections to the proposal.

Committee members voted unanimously to reject the Katz plan, leaving them without any other ideas.

“I think we will be disbanding ourselves – or may be,” Duson said near the end of the meeting.

She added, however, that she would discuss further steps with city officials first.

Portland has made other efforts to commemorate King over the years.

In 2008, city officials proposed a memorial along the Bayside Trail and began to raise money before the Great Recession intervened, scuttling the fundraising effort. In 2017, the City Council’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee floated the idea of changing Franklin Street’s name to honor King, but that idea met with resistance and was abandoned.

For the latest effort, Portland had allocated $100,000 for a Bayside memorial. It’s unclear what will happen to that money now.

King, who was assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, never visited Portland, but he did speak in Brunswick and Biddeford.

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