Friends, admirers of King gather to break ground for memorial
WASHINGTON -- Two presidents, a renowned poet and lions of the civil rights movement joined thousands gathered on the Mall on Monday to pay homage to Martin Luther King Jr., a humble pastor who beseeched the nation to live up to its principles an...
WASHINGTON -- Two presidents, a renowned poet and lions of the civil rights movement joined thousands gathered on the Mall on Monday to pay homage to Martin Luther King Jr., a humble pastor who beseeched the nation to live up to its principles and earned a place in the pantheon of American history.
Ground was broken for a memorial to the slain civil rights leader to be built along the edge of the Tidal Basin, midway between monuments to Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. It will be the first on the Mall honoring a black person and the first that does not memorialize a president or a war hero.
The memorial will be situated not far from where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington in 1963.
During his speech, President Bush thanked his predecessor, former President Clinton, for signing the legislation in 1996 that authorized the memorial. It is targeted for completion in the spring of 2008.
Noting that the memorial will be flanked by the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, Bush said, "It will unite the man who declared the promise of America and the man who defended the promise of America with the man who redeemed the promise of America."
The crowd gave Clinton a standing ovation.
"It belongs here," said Clinton, basking in the crowd's enthusiasm. Jefferson "told us we were all created equal," and Lincoln abolished slavery; but both "left much undone," Clinton said.
He added that contemporary lessons could be learned from King's legacy of nonviolence. "Civil disobedience works better than suicide bombing," he said. And the memorial to King reminds people that "the time is always ripe to do right."
Despite an overcast sky and muddy grounds, the ceremony attracted thousands and included corporate leaders, celebrities and politicians. Among them were television personality Oprah Winfrey, poet Maya Angelou, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rep. Harold Ford Jr., Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, journalist Diane Sawyer, fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger and NBA legend Bill Walton.
On her way to the stage, gingerly stepping around mud puddles, Winfrey said she came to the event because "I've lived the dream."
On stage, she elaborated: "It is because of Dr. King that I stand, that I have a voice to be heard," Winfrey said. "I do not take that for granted. Not for one breath. ... Because he was the seed of the free, I get to be the blossom."
King's children said they hoped the memorial would be a place where millions of children would come to learn about their father's work and the beginnings of the civil rights movement.
"Our father just wanted to be a great pastor," said Bernice King, his youngest daughter. "Little did he know, he became a great pastor to a nation."
The memorial is scheduled to open in 2008, though fundraising is still under way and the day's ceremonies did not mark an official beginning of construction. Organizers have raised about two-thirds of the $100 million needed to develop the four-acre site, which will include a sculpted likeness of King and references to many of his most memorable speeches.
Some in the audience remembered the sweltering August day in 1963 when King made that speech. The young men who marched with King are now well into their 60s and 70s. Organizers have been pushing for a monument for more than 20 years and want participants in the movement to witness its completion, said Harry E. Johnson Sr., president of the Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation.
That opportunity slipped away for King's widow, Coretta Scott King, who died in January.
Civil rights stalwarts Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson teared up recalling the man they had walked alongside to help tear down the walls of segregation. As the shovels dug into the ground, Young turned to audience members and urged them: "Keep turning the dirt. Keep turning the dirt."
Cox Newspapers contributed to this report.