WASHINGTON — On a clear, blue-sky day in the nation's capital, President Barack Obama and major civil rights leaders helped dedicate a new memorial Sunday honoring the late civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with thousands of spectators watching, almost two months after it was originally scheduled to be dedicated.
Obama, the nation's first black president and who benefited enormously from the victories won by the civil rights movement, called King a man who "somehow gave voice to our deepest dreams and our most lasting ideals, a man who stirred our conscience and thereby helped make our union more perfect."
The centerpiece of the national memorial, the first on the National Mall honoring a non-president and an African-American, is a 30-foot-high, 12-foot-wide granite sculpture of a stern-looking King with his arms crossed. Nearby, a white granite wall displays 14 quotations from King's speeches and writings.
Facing the Tidal Basin, the King memorial, which cost $120 million and opened Aug. 22, stands between the Lincoln Memorial and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial on the National Mall.
"It's a good feeling just to look at him, a black man that made it to this level, to have him statue-ized," said Johnita Cox, 70, a retired nursing assistant from Jackson, Alabama. She took the train up to Washington and visited the memorial with her good friend from elementary school.
She recalled her childhood in Alabama; when she and other black friends walked on the sidewalk to school, they had to step aside when white people came close. She said bricks would sometimes be thrown through the windows of her house during periods of racial tension.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think this man, Martin Luther King, would be memorialized right there. I wouldn't have missed this for anything," Cox said.
The message of Obama's dedication speech, which began with some in the audience chanting "four more years" and touched on themes of fighting to overcome the hardships faced by King, seemed to echo some of the challenges faced by the president himself. Those challenges include repairing a weak economy beset by high unemployment and fighting against a nagging sense that some Americans have that the nation is in decline.
"As tough as times may be, I know we will overcome. I know there are better days ahead. I know this because of the man towering over us," he said at the end of his speech.
"Let us keep striving; let us keep struggling; let us keep climbing toward that promised land of a nation and a world that is more fair, and more just and more equal for every single child of God," Obama added.
The event, attended by a mostly African-American crowd, many wearing white hats bearing the slogan "Celebrate the Life, Dream, Legacy," was a mix of speeches from those who knew King and musical interludes from artists such as Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and James Taylor.
The memorial was originally scheduled to be dedicated on Aug. 28, the 48th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream Speech" during the March on Washington, but the heavy rains of Hurricane Irene forced organizers to postpone the dedication.
Organizers said before the event that they expected as many as 50,000 people would attend Sunday's dedication, down from the 250,000 that had been expected for the original August dedication.
One of those attending was Ernie Thomas, 71, a retired 20-year Air Force officer and state government employee, who flew to Washington, D.C. from his home in Moreno Valley, California.
"I think the memorial was long overdue," he said while waiting in an early morning line to get in. He came with his wife and two grown daughters, 38 and 46.
"I didn't think I ever would see this day, bottom line, in my lifetime because things were moving in a slow pace and we had a lot of obstacles along the way," he added. He said he experienced "extreme racism" when he served in South Carolina for the Air Force from 1959 to 1964.
Valentine Antony, 25, a student at Appalachian State University, drove up to Washington from North Carolina with his girlfriend for an economic justice rally on Saturday and then discovered the dedication. He said the ideals that King stood for have not been fully realized yet.
Antony noted how King's figure is not fully etched into the statue and compared that to the status of the civil rights and economic justice movements.
"The dream is still needing to be completed and fulfilled. He's walking forward and he's asking us to carve the rest out. We still have a lot of work to do," he said.
Other people who traveled to see the monument and attend the dedication came to both witness history and remind their children about a man whose legacy continues to affect people today, more than forty years after he was assassinated.
Marcus Johnson, 42, from Spartanburg, South Carolina, a federal Defense Department information technology employee, drove up with his wife, Angela, and their children Corey, 8, and 6-year-old twins Kendall and Kyle.
"I was born after the civil rights movement, but I want my kids to understand what their grandparents and my grandparents had to endure in their lifetimes to give them the privileges that I have right now and what they have," Johnson said.
(Lippman is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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