Standing on four acres of land on the shores of D.C.’s Tidal Basin, the memorial is positioned directly between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, and adjacent to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial. The King Memorial features a 30-foot tall sculpture of Dr. King called the Stone of Hope, which incredibly captures the late civil rights leader’s likeness emerging from a giant mountain-like granite stone. With arms folded, clutching a rolled document in his left hand, and wearing a facial expression of deliverance, the Stone of Hope is the centerpiece of the memorial, which also features a curved, 450-foot-long granite wall with inscriptions of 14 excerpts from King’s vast repertoire of writings, sermons and speeches.
On one side of the Stone of Hope is an excerpt from the “I Have a Dream” speech that reads, “Out of the Mountain of Despair, A Stone of Hope.” On the other side is an excerpt from another of King’s speeches that reads, “I was a Drum Major for Justice, Peace, and Righteousness.”
The King Memorial is also inclusive of two other large granite stones that depict the “Mountain of Despair.” What is intriguing is that visitors who come to see King’s Stone of Hope must first walk through the “Mountain of Despair” to reach it like King did in real life during his many turbulent marches for equality. In addition, a library is on the site that offers visitors books and souvenirs related to the life of King and his connection to the civil rights movement. Additionally, the memorial sits in the midst of some of D.C.’s famous cherry blossom trees, which will add an ambiance of beauty each spring when the pink and white trees blossom.
Interestingly, the King Memorial’s address is 1964 Independence Ave. How fitting, since the year 1964 is simultaneous with the passage of the Civil Right Act of 1964, which King helped champion. In addition, 1964 also represents the year that he was bestowed the coveted Nobel Peace Prize.
The central theme and design for the monument, which will be administrated and maintained by the National Park Service, was inspirationally motivated by King’s famous 1963, “I Have a Dream” speech. Delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., the speech has been called one of the most powerful and eloquently delivered oral presentations in the history of America. The speech still resonates with power and truth almost 50 years after it was delivered.
While the completion of the memorial was a long and winding road, filled with obstacles and setbacks, the dream could not be stopped. With approximately 125,000 attendees on hand to witness the historic dedication, which included President Barack Obama, first lady, Michelle Obama and scores of other political officials, civil rights leaders, celebrities and everyday people, the memorial was unveiled amid a festive and emotional atmosphere which featured performances by such artists as, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Nikki Giovanni, Jennifer Holiday and James Taylor.
“Our work is not done,” President Obama told an attentive and proud audience. “Change has never been simple or without controversy. We can’t be discouraged by what is. We’ve got to keep pushing for what ought to be. King refused to accept what he called the ‘is-ness” of today. He kept pushing towards the “oughtness” of tomorrow.”
The unveiling also brought out media outlets from around the world. “We had more than 2,500 press credential requests, of which about 40 percent came from the international press corps,” said Ty Christian, chief marketing strategist for the National Monument Project. Like others who had anything to do with the planning, building and completion of the memorial, Christian is extremely proud of the project. “I had many proud moments during my nine-year association with the building of the memorial,” says Christian. “However, one of my proudest moments was when the memorial was completed and the National Park Service actually installed the sign that said, Martin Luther King Memorial — National Mall and Memorial Park. That’s when I said, ‘Okay, this is a done deal.’”
While there have been other memorials of King erected around the world, in such places as South Africa, Hungary, Ghana, India, as well as a bust of him in Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Rotunda, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial is of historic significance. It is the first memorial ever to appear on the National Mall in honor of an African-American. In addition, it is only one of four memorials built in D.C., to honor an American citizen who has never served as this country’s president. “We didn’t want it to just be a monument or a statue, but a living memorial,” Harry E. Johnson Sr., president and chief executive officer of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation told a reporter for The Root in August. “It was important that it tells a story so that people could walk through and read the words of King and have those words still have relevance today.”
“Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.”
Herman “Skip” Mason Jr., national president of the historic Black Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, agrees with Johnson. Mason recalls the early days of the dream when his fraternity brothers George Sealy, Alfred Bailey, Oscar Little, Eddie Madison, John Harvey and Harold Navy convened to broker the idea of erecting a grand tribute to King, their fraternity brother. King pledged Alpha Phi Alpha in 1952 while attending graduate school at Boston University. “It was a long, 28-year journey,” says Mason. “However, Alpha Phi Alpha started the initial idea and moved it forward with a plan of action which included lobbying Congress, getting its support, and raising the initial seed money.”
Mason added that all of the Black fraternities and sororities made major contributions to the building of the memorial. “All together, monetary contributions from Black Greek organizations (fraternities and sororities) totaled about $1 million,” recalled Mason. “We, as Alphas knew that we couldn’t build this monument by ourselves. We knew that we had to bring in other Greek organizations, faith-based entities, corporate and community groups and even school children if we were going to complete the memorial.”
After decades of governmental, political, corporate, community, educational, faith-based and private collaborations, and a massive donor campaign, the pieces for the King Memorial were in place. The design-build team was formed, which consisted of ROMA Design Group, McKissack & McKissack, Turner Construction, Gilford Corporation and Tompkins Builders Inc. The executive team for the project included Johnson, Richard W. Marshall, chief financial officer, and Dr. Ed Jackson Jr., executive architect. Lei Yixin, a Chinese sculptor, was chosen to create the sculpture. The price tag for the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, from start to finish, was $120 million.
Donations to help meet the construction costs of this massive project were derived from numerous sources. A few of the major donors included the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Walt Disney Company Foundation, The Tommie Hilfiger Corporate Foundation, CBS, AT&T, BET, the NFL, FedEx, the NBA, Ford Motor Company, General Motors Foundation, Sheila Johnson, George Lucas, Victor McFarlane, Robert Smith, and Carlos and Debra Santana. Monetary donations of all sizes came from a host of other civic, community, religious, educational, corporate and private entities in United States and internationally. In addition, individual donations—large and small—came from children and adults of all ages and ethnic backgrounds.
While the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial stands open for global visitors, the memorial is not free of controversial opinions. Some people were offended that Lei Yixin, a native of The Republic of China, had the honor of sculpting King’s Stone of Hope, especially since Yixin had previously sculpted two sculptures of the late Mao Tse-tung, the famed Chinese communist leader and revolutionist. Some people felt that there were dozens of talented African-American sculptors in the United States, some of which lived in Georgia and Alabama; two states where King’s legacy began. “Martin Luther King is not only a hero of Americans, he also is a hero of the world. He pursued the universal dream of the people of the world.” Lei Yixin told a reporter from the International Business Times in August. Added Johnson, “We are very pleased with the work of Lei Yixin. Anyone who visits this great memorial will see that he did a great job and rendering of Dr. King. In addition, the King family was extremely pleased with the design of the memorial and the finished sculpture of Dr. King.”
“True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.”
Nevertheless, some also wonder why King’s stone image faces the Jefferson Memorial, just across the Tidal Basin, rather than facing the Lincoln Memorial located behind King? Lincoln, many point out, was more interwoven in the movement to free slaves, via the Emancipation Proclamation. After all, didn’t King render his greatest speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963?
Like most great people and projects, controversy and distracters are never far away but like most great people and projects, the beat goes on to reach respective goals. Dr. King and his memorial fall in to the “category of greatness.”
Born on Jan. 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Ga., King followed in the clergy footsteps of his father, Martin Luther King Sr. (Daddy King), who was the prominent Atlanta minister of Ebenezer Baptist Church, as well as a great civil rights leader in his own right. King’s mother, Alberta King, was a schoolteacher and church organist. Like her son, she was murdered. While playing the organ during Sunday church service on June 30, 1974, she was fatally shot by a lone gunman.
“We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.”
King graduated from Morehouse College. He went on to finish Crozer Theological Seminary before earning a Doctor of Philosophy degree in theology from Boston University in 1955. While in school, he became heavily influenced by the Mohandas Gandhi’s nonviolent philosophy and approach in the face of violent oppressors. King married the former Coretta Scott in 1953. The couple had four children: Yolanda, Martin Luther King III, Dexter, and Bernice.
In 1954 King was installed as the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. He was thrust into the national spotlight in December 1955 when he gave leadership to the Montgomery Improvement Association, an organization created to coordinate the powerful Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott was sparked by Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man. What ensued was a successful—but not without turmoil—yearlong boycott of the city’s bus system, a movement orchestrated by King that buckled the local economy and knocked it to its knees.
“We are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream…there comes a time, when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.”
King became a major force, along with Ralph Abernathy, in creating the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a historic civil rights organization founded in 1957. In 1958, King wrote the book, “Strive Toward Freedom,” which chronicled the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He became an imposing civil rights leader in numerous protests throughout Alabama and other southern states. In the spring of 1963, he led several demonstrations in Birmingham, which often resulted in his arrest, or being physical attacked by the police, police dogs or white bystanders—sometimes by all of the above.
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
During one arrest, King penned his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Later that summer, he was instrumental in planning and facilitating the legendary 1963 March on Washington where he delivered his legendary speech, “I Have a Dream.” After the great march on Washington, King was instrumental in the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1965 he, along with other civil rights leaders, led the Selma to Montgomery march in order to gain voting rights. The march was a pivotal moment for the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Aug. 5, 1965. King’s philosophy and work expanded from fighting for civil rights to confronting such issues as the ending of the Vietnam War, stopping poverty and other injustices against humans of all ethnic backgrounds.
“I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against it not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and above all with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as a moral example of the world.”
While King spent much of his adult life seeking change through peaceful means, his violent death in 1968 led to riots in major American cities, acts that King would not have approved of. In 1986 he was honored with a national holiday that is now observed in all 50 states. King is the first and only African-American in the history of the United States to be honored with a national holiday.
“Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”
Therefore, it is only fitting that King—the humanitarian, civil rights leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner, author, speaker, preacher, husband and father—was revered in life, and equally fitting that his legacy continues to be honored 43 years after his death. Through the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, his legacy will stand for all generations—past, present and future—to come, to see, to feel, and to never forget that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the ultimate drum major for justice, liberty, and equality, not only for colored people, negroes, Black people, Afro-Americans or African American but was a champion for everything decent and right for all of God’s people.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
“We will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, Black men and White men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free last.”