King’s monument itself is a dream

By Stephen Jermanok
Globe Correspondent / August 28, 2011

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WASHINGTON - One visit to the National Mall and even the most disenchanted American can feel stirrings of nationalist pride while peering up at the Washington Monument, seeing the bronze of Thomas Jefferson standing tall in its colonnaded rotunda, and the sculpted Abraham Lincoln, posed in his custom-made chair courtesy of Daniel Chester French.

You can add the name Martin Luther King Jr. to those who have earned their place on this sacred patch of grass. More than 250,000 people were expected to show up Sunday morning for the dedication ceremony, on the 48th anniversary of King’s historic “I Have a Dream’’ speech, but the event has been postponed due to the threat of Hurricane Irene.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial has a prime spot in West Potomac Park, overlooking the waters of the Tidal Basin on a direct line between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials. The sculpture of the renowned civil rights leader faces Jefferson and his great promise of freedom for all, found in the Declaration of Independence. The steps of the Lincoln Memorial also resonate profoundly, having been the site where King uttered those famous words - again and again - on Aug. 28, 1963, before a crowd estimated at 250,000.

“What better place to put a King, but between two presidents,’’ said Harry E. Johnson Sr., CEO of the MLK Memorial Foundation, as he guided me around the final stages of the construction in June.

It has been almost 15 years since Congress passed a resolution authorizing Alpha Phi Alpha, the fraternity to which King belonged, to build a memorial in Washington that would honor the legacy of the man and his message of justice, hope, and compassion. That’s not to say Johnson didn’t overcome his own heap of adversity to ensure that the memorial would be built exactly how the fraternity envisioned.

“At first, we were offered a plot of land across the street from RFK Stadium on the outskirts of town,’’ he said. Others objected to a memorial on the Mall being used for a person who was never president, but Johnson prevailed, eventually receiving the choice 4-acre lot just around the bend from the FDR Memorial.

The next daunting task was raising the $120 million required to build the memorial through such challenging times as 9/11 and a recession.

“Of course, I’m grateful for the corporate sponsorship. But it’s the little guy, the man who writes me a letter and says here’s $15 from my Social Security check to see this thing built. That really touches me and kept us going,’’ said Johnson.

Ed Jackson, the executive architect, was with the project from the inception, reviewing 900 design entries from architectural firms in 52 countries. The eventual winner, ROMA Design Group, based in San Francisco, used one of King’s quotes, “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope’’ to create a visual metaphor.

Jagged cliffs of granite form the dramatic entranceway to the memorial, giving physical shape to the words, “mountain of despair.’’ Thrust forward, seemingly cut out of the same granite block, is the towering “stone of hope,’’ the grand centerpiece of the layout.

Walk around the sides of this 30-foot-8-inch sculpture and you are mesmerized by the image of King, created by Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin. Arms crossed, perfectly rendered fingers holding pages of paper, probably a speech, King looks confident, serene, strong, and brave. Not immune to the fact that this is the first man of color to grace the Mall, Jackson decided on a pink-hued granite with specks of black and gray that he called “shrimp pink.’’

“If we stuck to Dr. King’s natural skin tone, it wouldn’t illuminate well at night,’’ Jackson said.

Twelve of King’s quotes are etched into a crescent-shaped “Inscription Wall’’ that forms the perimeter of the plaza. Elms have been planted to shade the benches by the wall, while down by the Tidal Basin shore, you find a mix of magnolia, oak, and pine trees. Jackson wanted a peaceful setting where future generations could sit and contemplate this great leader who was indeed “a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness.’’

Jackson sounded particularly poignant when discussing the 125 cherry blossom trees recently planted, noting that “they’ll be in bloom in April, the time of year when Dr. King was assassinated.’’

Stephen Jermanok can be reached at

If You Go

Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial
1964 Independence Ave., SW
Washington, D.C.
888-4-THE-DREAM (888-4-843-37326)
Like all memorials on the Mall, open 24 hours and free.
The Fairmont Washington, D.C.
2401 M St., NW
Through April 30, 2012, the centrally located Fairmont will be offering a “Build the Dream Package.’’ Starting at $249 a night, double occupancy, it includes breakfast for two, an official “Build the Dream’’ wristband, and a detailed walking map of the city.