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MLK Memorial Emerges From Stone on National Mall, After Decades of Planning

August 26, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
This weekend's dedication ceremony for the new memorial honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been postponed due to Hurricane Irene, but the public has already had an opportunity to reflect on the newest monument in Washington. Hari Sreenivasan reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight, a new memorial honoring Martin Luther King.

Hurricane Irene may have postponed this weekend’s dedication ceremony, but the public is already getting a first look.

Hari Sreenivasan has the story.

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., civil rights Leader: I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

HARI SREENIVASAN: His words inspired millions, and promoted nonviolence in America’s civil rights struggle.

And this week, 48 years since he delivered his famous speech on Washington’s National Mall, the new monument honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. opened to the public.

JERI GREEN, Washington, D.C.: Look at this. This is what his dream was. Look at all the nationalities that are here today.

JOHN BELLASCHI, Washington, D.C.: I think it’s a nice combination of thoughtful, peaceful, but strong. I like how it’s presented.

HARI SREENIVASAN: David Martin brought his children.

DAVID MARTIN, Washington, D.C.: And it was just the opportunity to bring them here. You know, every night, we say our prayers and we are thankful for the things that we have gotten. And those are on the backs of those who have sacrificed, and Dr. King was one among many.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For some, the memorial brought tears.

SAMMIE WHITING-ELLIS, Washington, D.C.: It’s almost like, when I turned the corner, it was like, I don’t know, such a warm feeling. But it feels like it did when you were a teenager and you were marching and you were — you were protesting, and you were being taught by your parents to stand up for what was right.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The site is a four-acre plot of land adjacent to the tidal basin between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. Two huge granite stones at the entrance form a mountain, a vision taken straight from Dr. King’s words.

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The stone of hope is there, too, in the form of a 30-foot sculpture of King. Fourteen quotes from King’s speeches, sermons, and writings are etched into a 450-foot-long wall.

HARRY JOHNSON, Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation: You can walk the wall, and you actually get a sense of, is he still talking in 1960, or is he talking in 2011?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Harry Johnson is president and CEO of the Memorial Foundation and spearheaded the $120 million project, funded mostly with private money.

HARRY JOHNSON: I think we all walk away saying this is so relevant today, because we actually can live, see, and place Dr. King in his proper perspective, that these words have meaning now.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The idea for a monument to King was originally proposed in 1984 by his college fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. A dozen years of lobbying later, Congress passed a joint resolution in 1996 authorizing the group to move forward.

President Clinton signed the legislation, and, a decade later, spoke at the ceremonial groundbreaking in 2006.

FORMER PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: The monument, however beautiful it turns out to be, will be but a physical manifestation of the monument already constructed in the lives and hearts of millions of Americans, who are more just, more decent, more successful, more perfect because he lived.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Even its address, 1964 Independence Avenue, is symbolic; 1964 is the year President Johnson signed the civil rights legislation, with King standing alongside.

JOHNNETTA COLE, Smithsonian National Museum of African Art: To stand in front of that monument is to face a movement. It is to feel the power and the possibility of change.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Johnnetta Cole is director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. She said the memorial will allow the country to revisit King’s message, and thinks the portrayal in stone is fitting.

JOHNNETTA COLE: Certainly, for me, it is significant that Dr. King, in a sense, rises out of a rock. He is solid, he is unshakable in his commitment to nonviolence and his insistence on change.

HARI SREENIVASAN: From conception to completion, this quiet spot for reflection of Dr. King’s life and works has been controversial. Everything from the location of the memorial to the design to the sculptor has been debated.

After a long planning, design and selection process, Lei Yixin of China was selected as the sculptor, leaving some unhappy that the committee had not chosen an African-American. But this week at the memorial’s opening, Lei told us he had struggled with class discrimination in his own impoverished life and understood King’s vision.

MASTER LEI YIXIN, memorial sculptor (through translator): When I was doing this sculpture, I felt that I had the same ideology as Dr. King. Equality is the priority. We can’t choose what we are born to be, but I truly agree with Dr. King’s concept: Everyone is born equally.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Some say King would be pleased his sculptor is from another part of the globe.

Reverend Jesse Jackson:

REVEREND JESSE JACKSON, Rainbow/PUSH Coalition: Dr. King was a globalist. The fact that the sculptor is from China, in the real world, half of all human — half of all human beings are Asian. Half are Chinese. It would impress him, because he saw the world through a door, not through a keyhole.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Jackson, a civil rights activist, was a close friend of King’s.

REVEREND JESSE JACKSON: He would appreciate the gesture. If there were any modification, it may be, as opposed to having just him alone, it may be him embracing a multiracial, multicultural family.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But these kinds of difficulties go with the territory when it comes to memorials anywhere, according to Kirk Savage, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of “Monument Wars,” a book about memorials and the National Mall.

KIRK SAVAGE, University of Pittsburgh: The monument to Robert E. Lee, which we will say is kind of an opposite monument, right, was carved by a Frenchman, not a Virginian, and that caused a lot of controversy at the time at the 1880s and ’90s, when it was built.

There have been major disputes, you know, over — you know, the Washington Monument itself took over 50 years to build. There were incredible problems in — with that particular — with that project.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Why?

KIRK SAVAGE: Well, because of its scale, of its form. Nobody really wanted an obelisk.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Another debate adding to the fray: King’s expression. Some have said he looks too stern and that his arms shouldn’t have been crossed. But the foundation said Lei was thorough. He spent many days in his studio with walls covered in photographs of King to get a sense of his spirit.

Lei spoke at Monday’s opening.

LEI YIXIN (through translator): I tried to convey Martin Luther King’s passion through his eyes, facial expression, and stance at this work, a passion that encourages people’s hope for the future.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Art critic Philip Kennicott of The Washington Post called it “a mishmash, stuck uncomfortably between the conceptual and literal, focused on the anodyne, pre-1965 King.”

But Jesse Jackson said King’s likeness in stone captures the full dimension of the man he knew.

REVEREND JESSE JACKSON: He comes to us not as a poet who was poetic. He comes to us not just as a philosopher who was philosophical. He comes to us as a man who was serious about the business. And so often I saw him in that pose as he was pondering what were the next steps in the struggle.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Whether the memorial brings in as many visitors as other monuments on the Mall or becomes as big of a landmark is unknown.

But, as Kirk Savage pointed out, the memorial already represents a profound change to the Mall.

KIRK SAVAGE: Because this is an area of the Mall that is dominated by war memorials and wartime presidents. And here we have a monument to a figure who, in fact, did — really did try to promote peace, and got the Nobel Peace Prize.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Many hope the memorial inspires action.

REVEREND JESSE JACKSON: My fear is that many will read his poetic words and will think more of poetry than policy. So we have to do his unfinished business, fighting poverty, illiteracy, disease, ending unnecessary wars, and using more minds and less missiles to make the world better.

JOHNNETTA COLE: I have always felt, if we were to honor him, if we are to celebrate him, then we do it not by our words, but by our actions.

HARI SREENIVASAN: With the dedication delayed, in the meantime, the public can now visit a memorial that’s been 27 years in the making.