Martin Luther King joins Lincoln, Roosevelt on National Mall

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 22, 2011 

UPDATE 8/26/2011: Due to Hurricane Irene the dedication has been rescheduled for Sept. or October.

WASHINGTON — Rep. Frederica Wilson had a chance recently to take a private VIP tour of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, but she turned it down. Too soon, she said.

"I want to get thrilled seeing it unveiled, to feel the passion," said Wilson, D-Fla. "I want to see the glory of the statue in a finished state. I want to be wowed with everyone else seeing the finished product."

Wilson will be among an anticipated crowd of more than 250,000 spectators Sunday for the dedication of the King memorial — a tranquil 4-acre monument of stone, greenery and trees along the northwest edge of Washington's Tidal Basin that will honor the slain civil rights leader.

Sunday's ceremony, which coincides with the 48th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" speech, will officially open the first monument on the National Mall honoring an African-American.

The $120 million memorial is part of a burgeoning number of monuments in the nation's capital recognizing African-American contributions to American life and culture.

On Washington's busy U Street corridor, the African American Civil War Museum recently reopened in a new, 5,000-square-foot home to better tell the story of the 200,000 slaves and freed African-Americans who fought in the conflict.

At the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, tourists can view two plaques placed by Congress last year to recognize the little-known fact that government-rented slave laborers helped construct the U.S. Capitol building.

Back on the National Mall, plans are under way for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which will be part of the Smithsonian Institution's 19-museum complex when it opens in 2015.

Ground won't be broken on the $500 million building — to be located near the Washington Monument — until next year, but curators have been busy amassing more than 10,000 artifacts since 2005, and expect to acquire 10,000 more by the museum's opening day.

The prized acquisitions include a silk and linen shawl given to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria, a biplane used by the Tuskegee Airmen, items from the popular African-American TV dance show "Soul Train," and the original coffin of Emmet Till, the 14-year-old African-American boy who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after he allegedly whistled at a white woman. His open-casket funeral was a focal point in the civil rights struggle.

"What's happening here is, finally, the world of museums and monuments are recognizing what we have known in the last 50 years, and that is the history and import of African-American culture is one of the most important things in our history," said Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the Smithsonian's African-American museum. "The African-American experience is a constant in defining America. The African-American story is everybody's story."

Kathe Hambrick, the president of the 100-member Association of African American Museums, agrees, adding that interest isn't limited to Washington.

"It's a growing phenomenon nationwide. Since Barack Obama became president we've seen more visitors, especially from Europe," said Hambrick, the founder and director of the River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville, La. "Museums are the places that hold the collective memories of people. For the first time in the last 40 years, we can look back and be included in that conversation."

But it's been a long, slow process getting there.

The original idea for an African-American museum on the mall goes back to 1915. In 1929, Congress approved creating the museum but provided no funding for it.

In 2003, Congress launched the current African-American museum project when it passed a bipartisan bill sponsored by liberal Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights icon and King protege, and conservative Republican Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, both of whom have since left the Senate.

"It's been nearly 100 years since the idea of a national African-American museum was first proposed," Hambrick said. "You ask, 'Why so long?' Why did slavery last so long? I don't know."

The national King memorial, by contrast, was 14 years in the making. Situated between the Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln memorials and across from the one for Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 4-acre site conveys the essence of King's message of justice, democracy, hope and love, according to its developers.

More than 1,700 tons of imported Chinese shrimp-pink granite forms three sculptures that anchor the site. One, called "Stone of Hope," features a 30-foot-high, 12-foot-wide likeness of King, cloaked in a business suit and arms folded. The accompanying pieces are called the "Mountain of Despair."

A 450-foot-long crescent-shaped wall made of Atlantic green granite from Canada — quarried by a Minnesota-based company — lines a section of the memorial. Inscribed on the wall are quotes from King's writings, sermons and speeches.

The site gives a nod to nature with 182 Japanese cherry trees, seven crape myrtles and 31 American elms.

"I see a very special memorial," proclaimed Ed Jackson, its chief architect. "I see a memorial befitting the contributions he made to the country and to the world."

But like the Smithsonian African-American museum, the King memorial has had to overcome obstacles. The federal government provided $10 million; the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation had to raise the rest of the money through donations.

The foundation is about $6 million short of the memorial's $120 million cost — a significant amount of money, Jackson said, but not enough to prevent its opening.

Foundation officials drew fire from African-American critics, labor unions and some lawmakers when they chose Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin to execute the project.

Several people have complained that Lei's King looks too Asian and too confrontational.

"I thought the statue was kind of stern for someone who was very peaceful," said James Pryde, an 85-year-old Tuskegee Airman who viewed the statue during a special tour for the famed World War II African-American aviators. "Everything else is lovely, a fitting memorial to a great man."

Some union groups blasted the foundation for paying Chinese workers to come to Washington to assemble the statue.

Vermont's congressional delegation — Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, independent Sen. Bernard Sanders and Democratic Rep. Peter Welch — wrote to Harry Johnson Sr., the president and chief executive officer of the foundation, in 2007 pressing him to use American granite instead of imported stone because "this great American monument should be built with American products." Vermont produces granite.

The California State Conference of the NAACP registered its anger in 2007 when it unanimously passed a resolution accusing the foundation of "outsourcing" the memorial project to China.

Jackson said foundation officials have taken steps to address the concerns. They quieted congressional complaints by using American stone — Mount Airy granite from North Carolina — on some of the memorial's curb work and crosswalks.

Foundation officials got the blessing of King's children for Lei's likeness of King. Martin Luther King III told USA Today last month that he thought Lei did "a good job" in depicting his father.

Lewis, who spoke at the 1963 March on Washington with King, also believes Lei's work properly captures his idol, mentor and friend.

During his private tour of the memorial, Lewis said, he went to the top of the statue and closely examined the features of King's face.

"I was deeply moved seeing it," Lewis said. "It's the best likeness of Dr. King I've seen anywhere."

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