Presidents, Celebrities Inaugurate Martin Luther King Memorial

By Elizabeth Kelleher
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - Opera and gospel music stars sang, President Bush and former President Clinton and four children gave speeches, poets read their lines and 75 people put shovels into the ground to inaugurate a memorial to civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington’s front yard - the National Mall - on November 13. 

President Bush said he was proud to dedicate the memorial in its “rightful place” - between monuments to Thomas Jefferson, who “declared the promise of America,” and Abraham Lincoln, “who defended the promise of America.”  King, Bush said, “redeemed the promise of America.”

The new memorial, the first on the National Mall to honor an African American, is scheduled to be completed in 2008 at the west end of the Tidal Basin that fronts the Jefferson Memorial.

In the summer of 1963, King delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech from the nearby steps of the Lincoln Memorial to more than 200,000 civil rights marchers gathered on the mall. That speech is considered by many to be one of the greatest speeches in American history.  King’s daughter Yolanda recalled her father’s voice as “velvet,” but also commanding, as it called on America to make good its promises of freedom and justice for all citizens.

The memorial will feature King’s words, inscribed behind falling water and near a “stone of hope” reminiscent of a phrase in his speech in which King said his dream and his faith would allow the marchers to go back to the South and “hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”

At the time of that and other civil rights marches, African Americans were segregated from whites in schools, shopping places, restaurants and on buses.  Their attempts to register to vote in the South often were met with violence.  King began a long campaign of nonviolent resistance to rectify these wrongs.  In his “dream” speech, he said his people would not be satisfied “until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”  Less than one year from that date, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, ending segregation practices.

After a cold and rainy morning November 13, the downpour stopped and 5,000 people – many women in high heels and fancy hats and men in their best suits and ties – walked determinedly through mud puddles to witness the groundbreaking.  Those civil rights activists who had been close to King and still are alive and able to travel were on hand – Andrew Young, America’s first African-American ambassador to the United Nations; Congressman John Lewis, founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the civil rights era; Dorothy Height, president emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women; and Jesse Jackson, a prominent political leader and former presidential candidate.

Television celebrity Oprah Winfrey came fashionably late but stopped to tell reporters, “I am who I am because of the struggles of Dr. King.  My life is what it is because of his work.”  She said she remembers King’s courage “with every breath” and plans to come back to visit the memorial when it is completed as well as a museum of African-American history that is also in the planning stages. (See related article.)

According to Young, Americans celebrate the words of King “not because he spoke them, but because he lived them.”  Young reminded the crowd that while King was engaging in a nonviolent struggle to secure rights for African Americans, his home was bombed, he was indicted for tax evasion, stabbed, and jailed for having an expired driver’s license (at which time he was taken 300 miles away in chains to a penitentiary).

President Bush praised King because he “held the nation to its own standards.”  He said King’s dream – a dream in which the nation rises up and lives out the true meaning of its creed, that all men are created equal – was not shattered by an assassin’s bullet, but “continues to inspire millions across the world.”

Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s anti-apartheid hero, sent a letter saying that King’s movement “transcends a single nation” and praising King’s legacy of standing up to tyranny “without looking for selfish gain.”

This memorial has been on the drawing board since President Clinton, who also was at the groundbreaking, signed legislation approving it in 1996.  The groundbreaking was “a chance to show supporters our appreciation and to look ahead to the future of the memorial,” said Harry E. Johnson Sr., the president of the foundation dedicated to creating the memorial.  The event drew international press attention and new donations. In the days leading up to the groundbreaking, $6 million was raised from corporations and individuals, bringing the total to more than two-thirds of the $100 million needed to complete the memorial.

The largest donors have been automaker General Motors Corporation, Tommy Hilfiger Corporate Foundation, the National Basketball Association and the Walt Disney Company Foundation.  On the evening of November 13, donors will be feted at a dinner at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts at which Gladys Knight, Brian McKnight and Michael Bolton will sing.

For more information, see Martin Luther King Jr.