WASHINGTON—Ordinary folks and mega-stars gathered on a muddy patch of the National Mall on Monday to break ground on a memorial honoring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
President Bush shared the stage with former President Bill Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., talk show host Oprah Winfrey, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton to launch the first memorial on the Mall dedicated to an African-American.
"Today we see only these open acres, yet we know that when the work is done, the King Memorial will be a fitting tribute, powerful and hopeful and poetic, like the man it honors," Bush told a mostly African-American crowd of 5,000 people. "As we break ground, we remember the great obstacles that Dr. King overcame and the courage that transformed American history."
Scheduled for completion in spring 2008, the $100 million crescent-shaped memorial will stand on prime real estate: four acres of land along Washington's Tidal Basin between the Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln memorials.
The location is symbolic and significant. Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, is a founding father of the country. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared freedom from slavery.
The steps of the Lincoln Memorial are also where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in the summer of 1963, capping a massive civil rights march on Washington.
"We give Martin Luther King his rightful place among the great Americans honored on our National Mall," Bush said. "And by its presence in this place it will unite the men who declared the promise of America and defended the promise of America with the man who redeemed the promise of America."
Bush received tepid applause from the crowd while Clinton, who signed the legislation to create the memorial, received loud cheers and a standing ovation. The difference in greeting wasn't lost on Bush.
"It sounds like they haven't forgotten you yet," Bush joked to Clinton and the crowd. "He's become, as you know, my fourth brother."
Bush has never been popular among African-Americans since becoming president after the contested 2000 election in which then-Vice President Al Gore captured 90 percent of the African-American vote. The White House's challenge to affirmative action policies and its response to Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans haven't helped his standing among African-Americans.
But politics wasn't the focus. Speaker after speaker lauded King for his contributions to the country and reminded people that, in some respects, King's dream remains a dream deferred.
"I suspect if he were here speaking at his own dedication, Dr. King would remind us that the best way to honor him is to pursue his dream and embrace his means to combat terror and create a world with more partners and fewer terrorists," Clinton said. "To grow the economy and provide equal opportunity for all to benefit from it—in incomes, health care and education."
Bush also said that racism continues in America.
"There's still prejudice that holds citizens back," he said. "And there's still a need for all Americans to hear the words of Dr. King so we can hasten the day when his message of hope takes hold in every community across our country."
For many of those in attendance, King's words and legacy live.
"I had to come here today out of love and respect for what he did for the nation," said Dena Briscoe, a U.S. Postal Service employee from Washington. "My heart compelled me to come. Martin Luther King set an example for all of us."
There are more than 650 streets bearing King's name in the United States and many statues honoring his legacy, but the Mall memorial will be the nation's way of remembering King, said Rufus Grooms, 59, from Clinton, Md.
"This will be the one the nation will know," he said.
Steve Collier, 54, showed up wearing a bracelet that his Temple Hills, Md., Shriners chapter sold to raise $5,000 to contribute to the memorial.
"It meant something to give something," Collier said.
The memorial is being paid for through contributions. The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation Inc. says it's raised about two-thirds of the $100 million needed.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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