|Thousands crowded the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, Oct. 16 for the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. (Robin Hamilton photo)
Last Sunday tens of thousands of people poured into the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for the dedication for the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial.
The dedication, which was originally slated for Aug. 28 on the 48th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” but was delayed because of bad weather, featured an impressive lineup of civil rights leaders and keynote speaker President Barack Obama.
The theme of justice left undone echoed throughout the morning. “Let us not be confused,” Rev. Al Sharpton told the eager crowd. “This is not a memorial to someone who has died … this is a marker of the fight for justice today.”
Bernice King, the youngest child of the civil rights hero, implored the audience to move beyond the “comfortable place” of the “I Have a Dream” speech to the more difficult fight for economic justice — a battle Dr. King took up toward the end of his life.
“He told us that we must become maladjusted to certain ills,” she said with the same urgency her father once spoke with.
“We should never adjust to a judicial system that allows us to take a life when guilt is yet in play,” she beseeched the crowd, her voice heightening. The reference to Troy Davis, who was recently executed by the state of Georgia despite serious questions about his guilt, set the crowd into a roar of approval.
“We should never adjust to a one percent controlling more than 40 percent of the wealth,” King went on, a nod to the Occupy movements taking place across the country.
“As we dedicate this monument, I hear my father say — what we see here today across the streets of America and the world, is a freedom explosion,” she continued. “The thunder of discontent we hear today is the thunder of disinherited masses rising from the dungeons of oppression.”
King also pointed to her mother, Coretta Scott King, who she said worked tirelessly after her husband’s assassination to ensure his legacy would not be forgotten.
The Martin Luther King Jr. memorial now stands alongside the Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Washington monuments, as well as various war memorials, on the National Mall. King is the only non-president to receive such an honor.
The four-acre memorial features a 30-foot relief of King, the “Stone of Hope,” in front of two other pieces of granite, the “Mountain of Despair.” Visitors must pass through the “Mountain of Despair” to reach the “Stone of Hope,” a reference to a line in his famous 1963 speech. Surrounding these pieces is a 450-foot arced inscription wall with 14 of King’s quotes.
Controversy erupted last month when the inscription on the “Stone of Hope” was revealed — it was a paraphrased quote of King, not his actual words. Two months before he was assassinated, King instructed Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church what to say at his eulogy — “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice, say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”
Instead, the inscription reads, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”
The paraphrased version “minimizes the man,” said Maya Angelou, the most vocal critic of the inscription. “It makes him seem less than the humanitarian he was … It makes him seem an egoist.”
It is not yet clear if the inscription will be changed.
The monument had its inception in 1984, a year after former President Ronald Reagan declared King’s birthday a national holiday, when members of the Alpha Phi Alpha proposed building a national memorial to their fallen fraternity brother. After more than 20 years of planning, fundraising and construction, the memorial opened to the public on Aug. 22, 2011.
Major contributors to the project included General Motors, Boeing, Tommy Hilfiger, Ford and Coca-Cola, among other large corporations.
Also speaking Sunday morning, Martin Luther King III, the oldest living child of Martin and Coretta, warned against making his father into a commodity. “While it is great to have this memorial to his memory — it’s great to have a national holiday, and it’s great to have streets and schools and hospitals named in his honor all over this nation and the world,” he said, “It is also important to not place too much emphasis on Martin Luther King the idol, without enough emphasis on the ideals of Martin Luther King Jr.”
“Sometimes we get caught up in the brand of my father,” he continued, “and we forget the focus and the beliefs of my father.”
Like his sister, King also mentioned current areas for social and economic change, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and encouraged the audience to remember their collective, connected humanity.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who participated in the Freedom Rides in 1961 and coordinated the SNCC’s Mississippi Freedom Summer’s voter registration campaign, said King “must be looked upon as one of the founding fathers of the new America” because he “liberated a nation.”
To the visible disappointment of the audience, many of whom were decked out in T-shirts and buttons bearing Obama’s face, the president’s keynote speech was delivered at a distance, so he could only be seen on the stage’s jumbotron, not in person. Nevertheless, the crowd chanted “four more years” as his image appeared on the giant screen.
Obama, who at times seemed to be speaking about himself, reminded the crowd, “Change has never been quick — change has never been simple or without controversy.”
“Dr. King wasn’t always considered a unifying figure,” he continued. “Even after rising to prominence, even after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King was vilified by many ... He was even attacked by his own people.”
Like the other speakers in the program, the president then encouraged the crowd to continue King’s legacy. “Dr. King refused to accept what he called the ‘is-ness’ of today — he kept pushing toward the ‘ought-ness’ of tomorrow,” Obama went on. “We can’t be discouraged by what is — we gotta keep pushing for what ought to be, the America we ought to leave to our children.”
“Let us keep striving. Let us keep climbing to the Promise Land.”
Also appearing were Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Rev. Jesse Jackson, former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Rev. Joe Lowery, former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond and former Banner reporter Gwen Ifill, now senior correspondent for PBS NewsHour.
On the 48th anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech, a towering memorial will honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a man of peace among the many monuments to wars and presidents in the nation's capital. The road to this weekend's dedication, however, has run through hurdles of all kinds - not unlike the long struggle over King's legacy itself.
Since King's death, there have been financial worries at the King Center in Atlanta, and legal fights over the use of his image and words and over control of the civil rights organization he co-founded.
Many people wanted to help shape King's bricks-and-mortar legacy as well, the first memorial for a black leader on the National Mall. There were skirmishes over who would sculpt King's likeness, where the granite would come from and who would profit from the mammoth $120 million fundraising effort as the family demanded a licensing fee to support its Atlanta priorities. More »
I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. More »