The 30ft-tall statue, which forms the centrepiece of a $120 million (£73 million), four-acre memorial to Dr King, opened to the public on Monday on the National Mall in Washington. It is the only memorial on the Mall that does not honour a president or fallen soldiers.
Standing in the shadow of the Washington Monument, the statue shows Dr King emerging from a mountain of Chinese granite with his arms crossed and is called The Stone of Hope.
However, there has been controversy over the choice of Lei Yixin, a 57-year-old master sculptor from Changsha in Hunan province, to carry out the work. Critics have openly asked why a black, or at least an American, artist was not chosen and even remarked that Dr King appears slightly Asian in Mr Lei’s rendering.
Mr Lei, who has in the past carved two statues of Mao Tse-tung, one of which stands in the former garden of Mao Anqing, the Chinese leader’s son, carried out almost all of the work in Changsha.
More than 150 granite blocks, weighing some 1,600 tons, were then shipped from Xiamen to the port of Baltimore, and reassembled by a team of 100 workmen, including ten Chinese stone masons brought over specifically for the project.
Dr King’s son, Martin Luther King III, has defended the outsourcing.
“I have seen probably 50 sculptures of my dad, and I would say 47 of them are not good reflections,” he said, to USA Today.”This particular artist: he has done a good job.”
However, Ed Dwight, a sculptor in Denver, said Dr King would be “turning over in his grave” if he knew his likeness had been conceived by someone living under a Communist regime.
“He would rise up from his grave and walk into their offices and go, ‘How dare you?'”
Mr Lei was chosen after the memorial’s fund-raisers observed him at work at a stone carver’s symposium in Minnesota. Amid the criticism, the architects in charge of the project said that they had visited Mr Lei’s studio in Changsha to find he had already carved several versions of the work.
He has also prepared a bronze bust of Barack Obama which he intends to gift to the president.
The new memorial is next to the Lincoln Memorial, on whose steps Dr King delivered his “I have a dream” speech in 1963, a defining moment in the American Civil Rights movement. The statue will be officially dedicated on Sunday, the anniversary of the speech, but the park has opened in advance to visitors. Around 400,000 people are expected in the run-up to Sunday’s event.
The statue, meanwhile, will be 11ft taller than the statues in the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. It is unclear how much money was saved by making it in China.