King Memorial Nears Dream of Completion
Forty-two years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, a memorial in Washington, D.C. honoring his legacy is a year and a half from completion.
Representatives for the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation say the four-acre space on the National Mall will open in fall 2011. After 14 years of fundraising, the memorial is now $14 million from its $120 million goal, said Rica Orszag, spokesperson for the foundation.
"It's just exhilarating knowing that we have come this far," said Harry Johnson, president and CEO of the foundation. The road to reaching the fundraising goal has been long, said Johnson, one of several people who have helped run the foundation, and one of two presidents who have overseen its sporadic success at raising money.
World events including the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, 2005's Hurricane Katrina and the recent earthquake in Haiti have all taken some focus away from the project's fundraising efforts, Johnson said.
"We have learned that every 18 months, something is going to happen to take up the attention span of Americans, and rightly so," he said. "But Americans are very giving and so we still managed."
Multi-million dollar donations helped. They came from Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, of which King was and Johnson is a member; and the foundations for General Motors, Tommy Hilfiger, Bill and Melinda Gates and others. A $12.5 million letter of credit from the Wal-Mart Foundation announced in November allowed organizers to buy a construction permit from the National Park Service and begin building, Orszag said.
The King memorial's placement on the National Mall is significant. To the public, memorials on the Mall are special recognition of a place in mainstream American history.
The National Capital Planning Commission approved the site for the King memorial in 1999, amid worries from various groups that the Mall was becoming overcrowded. Warnings about overbuilding and using up too much of the Mall's green space have come from the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, a nonprofit based in Rockville, Md., and from U.S. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.
In 2003, Congress imposed a moratorium on new building in the space, but lawmakers gave special approvals to the National Museum of African-American Culture and History, slated to be complete in 2015, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial visitor center, which according to its website does not yet have a scheduled opening date.
Bernice King, one of King's four children and a minister, said she hopes the King memorial serves as a reminder for the necessity of helping others. "As the last born of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, my family is honored to see a memorial built in our nation's capital in honor of the freedom fighters of a critical era in America's history," said King, who was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in October and will be installed later this year.
"It is imperative that we never forget the past while keeping a mindful eye on the future of the global 'World House' we have inherited," she continued. "As my father warned, we must not sleep through the revolutions necessary to bring about true, sustainable social change for the global disinherited masses. Let the King Memorial in Washington D.C. stand as a beacon of hope, truth and justice for all, especially generations unborn. The memorial is a fitting symbol of the progressive struggle of a people and the promise of our nation and the world."
Andrew Young, the former United Nations ambassador, Atlanta mayor and congressman, was among civil rights activists in Memphis on April 4, 1968, for rallies to support striking sanitation workers. He was at the Lorraine Motel the evening King was shot through the jaw and neck while on a balcony outside his room.
Young helps oversee the foundation's executive leadership group. He noted that even among monuments to former presidents, "there's nothing in Washington that speaks of nonviolence."
"Maybe Jefferson, but Washington and Lincoln were both heroes who achieved America's independence and had to resort to violence," Young continued. "Martin pushed for the liberation of America without killing anybody and without destroying any person or property. I think that's ideal and that's the goal that we have to work toward -- a peaceful and prosperous world."
The memorial, located on the Tidal Basin between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, will feature water, trees and stone that create niches throughout the space. Each niche will include writing on stone detailing contributions of civil rights martyrs, such as slain NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers or the four little girls killed in a 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala.
Details have been carved out by ROMA Design Group of San Francisco and Ed Jackson, executive architect for the foundation. A virtual tour of the site and full details are at the foundation's website, www.mlkmemorial.org.
A 28.5-foot-tall centerpiece sculpted by Lei Yi Xin, a master artist from China, will feature King's likeness. Large stones will mark the entrance and feature King's words.
One stone will read, "With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope." Another will feature the words also carved into the Civil Rights Memorial near Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, King's old congregation in Montgomery, Ala.: "Let justice roll down like the mighty waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."
Organizers will place 200 cherry trees at the site, Johnson said, adding to the many trees around the Tidal Basin donated to Washington by Japan in 1912. The annual white blossoms mark spring in the capital.
"Knowing that the cherry blossoms happen to bloom the same week Dr. King gave up is life is kind of metaphorical," Johnson said.
He believes the water, trees and King's words will make visitors feel the leader's spirit of nonviolence.
"There will be a sense of peace," Johnson said. "A sense of tranquility will come over you as you think about what Dr. King really meant not just to this country but to the world."