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SAVING DR. KING – Iconic Statue in Downtown San Bernardino Crumbling

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Community groups seeking $8,500 for restoration

By Chris Levister

The 11-foot tall, one ton, Dr. Martin Luther King statue in downtown San Bernardino is under siege and in urgent need of repair. The base is deteriorating. There are cracks across the statue's stomach, on its fingers, knees, arms and on both legs and ankles. The protective patina sealant is failing. The statue is heavily soiled with bird droppings and carbon deposit according to experts who estimate that repairs will cost approximately $8,500.

The Inland Empire area could soon lose its most visible public sculpture if immediate steps aren't taken to repair the crumbling statue, according to local contractor Michael Lexion who evaluated the iconic monument.

Longtime community activist and businesswoman Francis Grice offers an unapologetic mix of unbridled joy and disgust when talking about the MLK statue considered the first ‘larger than life statue’ of Dr. King in the world.

“This is a disgrace. It’s shameful and sickening to see the horrible condition of this magnificent statue….nothing short of benign neglect,” said Grice.

To pay for the restoration and establish ongoing maintenance more than 30 local groups and community leaders have come together to carry out a sole mission of ‘Saving the MLK Statue’.

Joseph Williams chairman of the Black Culture Foundation (BCF) fundraising committee says the group quickly recognized that city funds are not available for the restoration and maintenance of the statue. BCF is appealing to private and corporate donors and seeking grants and other sources of revenue.

The committee is in the process of procuring a contractor for the restoration. The initial renovation will cost approximately $8,500 with an annual maintenance charge of approximately $1,500.

The Black Culture Foundation has agreed to use their 501(C)3 as a conduit to raise and disperse the project’s funds.

“He looks like he’s bleeding. He’s hurting,” says Williams, founder and chief executive officer of the Youth Action Project which is helping to restore the King statue.

Williams says, in many ways the deterioration symbolizes the current state of our city. “His legs have severe cracks going all the way around them. A couple more storms like we’ve had recently and he could fall down.”

The statue’s deterioration came to light recently when a city worker tried to clean it in preparation for San Bernardino’s annual Route 66 event.

“He was shocked by what he saw,” says Grice. It didn’t help matters when another worker suggested that the statue be torn down since the now bankrupt city has no money to pay for repairs and upkeep.

“We are committed to ensuring young and old people alike do not forget Dr. Martin Luther King, his mission and legacy and what the statue stands for: Civil Rights, Equality, peaceful co-existence, and respect for the use of power, the struggle, challenge and the plight for the Dream to live on,” said committee member Grice who’s Operation Second Chance Foundation was an original patron of the sculpture.

In addition to ongoing maintenance of the statue, and surrounding landscaping, the committee will create an educational component to the statue that would be used by schools in their teaching of American history, attract visitors, and serve to develop a greater appreciation of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Our goal is to have the statue renovated and ready for unveiling at a King birthday celebration scheduled for January 2013, said Grice.

Pastor’s dream led to King statue outside San Bernardino City Hall

Full-length figure of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stands on a square base with sloped sides.

Dr. King wears a suit and tie and his proper left hand is on his chest. A separate granite marker bearing a plaque with text entitled "The Dreamer" is installed nearby. The idea for a King monument came from Rev. Gertrude Whetzel.

She was a quiet little lady, known for always wearing a pillbox with a veil, recalls Grice. She touted the virtues of Dr. King and declared soon after his death that a statue should be built in his honour.

Beginning March of 1972, Whetzel claiming to have had a vision from the Holy Spirit in 1971 spearheaded a non-profit group. She sold spaghetti dinners every weekend and worked diligently for many years trying to move the project forward.

Fundraising efforts for the statue stalled until an inter-racial group raised nearly $40,000 in less than two years. Grice said most of the money was donated by black residents. Finally, with the assistance of the local chapter of the Masonic Prince Hall and Mayor W.R. (Bob) Holcomb, the statue was commissioned with Mexico City artist Julian Martinez Soto. On Nov. 8, 1981, a racially mixed crowd of about 700 gathered at City Hall for a dedication service. A letter from Coretta Scott King was read.

“More than ever, our society and particularly our young people need non-violent role models. Your statue will undoubtedly serve as a reminder of this responsibility,” King’s widow wrote.

Rev. Whetzel also ministered at both St. Paul A.M.E. and Allen Chapel in San Bernardino. She was so respected that the Inland Empire Concerned African American Churches (IECAAC) named their top award given every Martin Luther King, Jr holiday after her.

Pointing to a 1981 photograph of the statue unveiling ceremony Grice recalled an enviable time of city pride, prosperity and bipartisanship.

“We were very, very excited and proud. Mr. Soto a Hispanic from Mexico City understood the messages of peace, justice, and activism advocated by the Nobel Peace Prize winner. That’s why people from all sectors of our city must step up to restore this great landmark to its original magnificence and grandeur.”

For more information or to submit your donation in person, please contact any member of the MLK Statue Fundraising Sub-Committee or Joseph Williams (909) 754-1068.

All checks should be made payable to: Black Culture Foundation. Checks may be mailed to: E. Garcia, P. O. Box 7288, San Bernardino, CA 92411.

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