Landscape Architecture Professor Selected to Serve As Jurist for Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Design
By Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs
These days, Randy Hester Jr., a professor in the College of Environmental Design, is brushing up on the life and lessons of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But it's not just to prepare for the Jan. 17 national holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader.
Hester has work to do.
He is one of nine design and architecture professionals appointed by MLK Project leaders to select the best design for a Washington, D.C., monument to King. The international competition has a May 1 deadline, and a winner will be announced on June 15.
Hester, a landscape architecture professor who grew up in rural North Carolina as the son of a poor, white farmer, called the jury appointment "one of the most flattering honors of my whole career."
Other jury members include Charles Correa of Bombay, designer of the Gandhi Museum in India; and architecture professor Wu Lang Yung at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
The monument will be erected on 4-acre parcel across the Tidal Basin from the Jefferson Memorial and north of the memorial to President Franklin Roosevelt. More than 1,000 entries have been submitted, surpassing those for the Vietnam War Memorial.
This tribute to the man who spurred a movement for blacks, the poor and the underprivileged seems a perfect task for Hester, who specializes in neighborhood design, community participation and sacred landscapes. He studied landscape architecture and sociology at North Carolina State University and Harvard University.
"Randy comes from a lived experience that allows him to understand what was happening in the South in the time of segregation and what was happening in the time of civil rights," said fellow jurist La Verne Wells-Bowie, co-manager of the King competition and an associate professor of architecture at Florida A&M University.
"He (Hester) lived that dilemma of understanding (the injustice) and (yet benefiting from) white-skinned privilege," said Wells-Bowie, a Berkeley graduate familiar with Hester's work around the world.
Hester's childhood poverty, personal sense of justice and interracial friendships also added critical dimensions to his life. His college days were jarred by John F. Kennedy's assassination during his first year there and King's slaying in his last.
"There was no upper middle-class, white liberal abstraction," Hester said of his upbringing. "Black people weren't abstracted, they were real. They were people I knew."
At 20, Hester alienated his father when he moved into what Hester called a $43-a-month "shotgun house" in the predominantly black Chavis Heights neighborhood in Raleigh, N.C. He already had worked on successful efforts to derail urban renewal projects that would have devastated and isolated poor black neighborhoods. He continued on similar projects.
"I learned a huge amount living there, and it was an incredible sense of community," Hester said. "It was the greatest sense of community, the greatest neighborhood I have ever known."
Hester then began teaching. With his students he formed a "New Lands" organization to help poor residents resist eviction and remain in their homes. He was elected to the Raleigh City Council in 1976, using his position to allocate federal community development funds for day care, jobs and other services in Chavis Heights.
Drawing largely from his experience there, Hester wrote a book called, "Neighborhood Space," arguing that typical neighborhoods were designed for the middle-class resident and promoted isolation more than community. The tight layout of Chavis Heights, with its narrow streets and other forms, contributed to its sense of community, Hester said. For more than a decade, he focused his writing on the design of homes, parks and other space, often specifically for minority groups.
Since learning of his appointment, Hester has been re-reading King's works. He said he's finding dozens of extraordinary speeches and essays to inspire and provoke the designers.
Particularly powerful, he said, is King's letter from the Birmingham jail, and a passage assailing Christian churches for too often placing a need for societal order above social justice. "It's one of the most interesting ideas that somebody who's designing (the memorial) has to address," Hester said. "Is justice disorderly?"
The Washington, D.C., setting for the memorial also is heavily dominated by well-ordered space, he said, and a hierarchy that must be evaluated by the designer.
Because King's speeches and writings were sophisticated and often subtle, "the memorial has to provide some of that complexity," Hester said.
He added that it also needs to reflect King's message of social justice that "solidified a whole set of principles that are the very best of America."