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Obama, Civil Rights Leaders Formally Dedicate MLK Memorial

October 17, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Tens of thousands of people gathered Sunday in Washington to formally dedicate the National Mall's newest destination, a memorial honoring the life of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. Gwen Ifill reports.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, tens of thousands of people gathered in Washington yesterday to formally dedicate the National Mall’s newest destination, a memorial honoring the life of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.

I was honored to serve as emcee.

Hurricane Irene blew the original plans away, but yesterday’s delayed dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial featured clear skies, huge crowds, joyous music.

(MUSIC)

GWEN IFILL: The first family was joined by the King family as they toured the towering Stone of Hope sculpture near the Tidal Basin.

And the president placed a copy of his 2008 nominating convention speech in a time capsule. Just steps from the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, the civil rights leaders who marched with him marked his memory.

Georgia Rep. John Lewis:

REP. JOHN LEWIS, D-Ga.: When we came to Washington 48 years ago, we had signs that said, white men, colored men, white women, colored women, white waiting, colored waiting. Those signs are gone, and they will not return.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

REP. JOHN LEWIS: The only place our children will see those signs will be in a book, in a museum, on a video. And I hear too many people saying now, 48 years later, that nothing has changed.

Come and walk in my shoes. Dr. King is telling you that we have changed, that we are better people, we’re a better nation.

GWEN IFILL: Southern Christian Leadership Conference co-founder, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who just turned 90:

REV. JOSEPH LOWERY, Southern Christian Leadership Conference: We recognize here that, in the midst of the amazing truth, that an African-American preacher who never held public political office is recognized here among the fathers of the country. Indeed, he has become a father of the country, for his leadership gave birth to a new America.

GWEN IFILL: And Ambassador Andrew Young:

ANDREW YOUNG, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations: When you think of Martin Luther King as a giant of a man, but the one complex he had was a complex about his height.

(LAUGHTER)

ANDREW YOUNG: He was really just 5’7”. And he was always getting upset with tall people who looked down on him. Now he’s 30 feet tall, looking down on everybody.  

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GWEN IFILL: King’s daughter Bernice, also an ordained elder, said her father didn’t do his work alone.

REV. BERNICE KING, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr.: We would be remiss if we didn’t also recognize and honor the life and legacy of my mother, Mrs. Coretta Scott King…

(APPLAUSE)

REV. BERNICE KING: … for, left after the assassination of my father to raise us four children, my mother also, with her dedicated and tireless efforts, raised a nation in our father’s teachings and values.

GWEN IFILL: And several speakers pointedly added that King would still have been fighting today.

The Rev. Al Sharpton:

REV. AL SHARPTON, civil rights activist: He brought us from the back of the bus. He brought us to voting rights. But we must continue to fight for justice today. Justice is not trying to change the Voting Rights Act and deny us in 34 states our right to vote with voter I.D. laws.

Justice is not executing people on recanted testimonies. Justice is not sending children to schools that are not funded. Justice is not 1 percent of the country controlling 40 percent of the wealth.

GWEN IFILL: Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman called for an end to childhood poverty.

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN, Children’s Defense Fund: Where is your voice to say stop children falling into poverty? Why have we normalized and let our leaders normalize child poverty and homelessness and hunger in America? Stand up and speak up for your children and their future. Honor Dr. King by committed action.

GWEN IFILL: And Martin Luther King III said his father’s nonviolent ideals remain on display, most recently in ongoing street protests.

MARTIN LUTHER KING III, son of Martin Luther King Jr.: The young people of the Occupy movement all over this country and throughout the world are seeking justice, justice for the employed searching for months for jobs and those among them having given up in despair, justice for working-class people barely making it.

MAN: President Barack Obama.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GWEN IFILL: Standing before the monument to deliver remarks displayed on big screens to a larger crowd a short distance away, President Obama said King is to be remembered for more than his speeches.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is worth remembering that progress did not come from words alone. Progress was hard. Progress was purchased through enduring the smack of billy clubs and the blast of fire hoses. It was bought with days in jail cells and nights of bomb threats. For every victory during the height of the Civil Rights movement, there were setbacks and there were defeats.

GWEN IFILL: And like King nearly half-a-century ago, the president spoke of his dreams for his children.

BARACK OBAMA: I want them to come away from here with a faith in what they can accomplish when they are determined and working for a righteous cause. I want them to come away from here with a faith in other people and a faith in a benevolent God.

GWEN IFILL: Then Stevie Wonder led the crowd in a sing-along to the 1981 anthem he wrote as part of a campaign to make King’s birthday a national holiday.

(MUSIC)