In the “Dream” speech, King spoke not only of a Mountain of Despair and Stone of Hope, but of a desolate valley of segregation, a solid rock of brotherhood, the majestic heights of “soul force” and a lonely island of poverty in a vast ocean of material prosperity. Sometimes valleys are exalted, sometimes they are places where people “wallow in despair.” Even the heights, or high ground, aren’t always a positive image in King’s rhetoric. In one of his early speeches, in Montgomery, Ala., he spoke of being pushed from the “glittering sunlight of life’s July” into the “the piercing chill of an alpine November.”
It was very much a mobile army of metaphors that King deployed. To the listener, they are pure poetry. But they were never meant to be pinned down in the way that creating a $120 million memorial based on one trope pins down an image.
The image also created visual and design challenges that no one figured out how to solve. A mountain should be big, but a memorial near the Mall must be in scale to its surroundings — and given that the entire plaza rests on more than 340 pilings driven through marshy muck some 40 to 50 feet into bedrock, the mountain couldn’t get much larger even if the relevant authorities had approved something more colossal. Metaphorically, it seems as if the Stone of Hope ought to be smaller than the mountain from which it is hewn, but because it contains a statue of King, it must be big enough to be impressive.