Martin Luther King Jr. memorial: Civil rights leaders talk of hardships that remain

WASHINGTON -- President Obama and civil rights leaders on Sunday helped dedicate a memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with thousands of spectators watching, almost two months after it was originally scheduled to be dedicated.

MLK memorial
President Obama (center) his daughter Malia Obama (left) and Harry Johnson, president and CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Foundation look at the memorial as King family members and the first family look on Sunday in Washington. From right are Marion Robinson, first lady Michelle Obama and Sasha Obama. (Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

WASHINGTON -- President Obama and civil rights leaders on Sunday helped dedicate a memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with thousands of spectators watching, almost two months after it was originally scheduled to be dedicated.

Obama, the nation's first black president, who benefited enormously from the victories won by the civil rights movement, called King a man who "somehow gave voice to our deepest dreams and our most lasting ideals, a man who stirred our conscience and thereby helped make our union more perfect."

The centerpiece of the national memorial, the first on the National Mall honoring a non-president and an African-American, is a 30-foot-high, 12-foot-wide granite sculpture of King with his arms crossed. Nearby, a white granite wall displays 14 quotations from King's speeches and writings.

In many ways, the ceremony was a passing of the torch to a younger generation with speeches marked by fierce rhetoric over the nation's economic disparities.

Thousands gathered at the memorial site, some as early as 5 a.m., to hear Obama, King's children and other civil rights leaders. Speaker after speaker invoked King's "I Have a Dream" speech from 1963 to challenge others to carry on his fight.


"Yes, my father had a dream. It was a dream, he said, that was deeply embedded in the American dream," said King's son Martin Luther King III. "The problem is the American dream of 50 years ago ... has turned into a nightmare for millions" who have lost their jobs and homes.

The nation has "lost its soul," he said, when it tolerates such vast economic disparities, teen bullying and having more people of color in prison than in college.

His sister, the Rev. Bernice King, reminded the crowd that just before her father's assassination in 1968, he was mobilizing a poor people's campaign to occupy the nation's capital until the economic system changed.

Facing the Tidal Basin, the King memorial, which cost $120 million and opened Aug. 22, stands between the Lincoln Memorial and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial on the National Mall.

"It's a good feeling just to look at him, a black man that made it to this level, to have him statueized," said Johnita Cox, 70, a retired nursing assistant from Jackson, Ala. She took the train up to Washington and visited the memorial with a friend.

She recalled that when she and other black friends walked on the sidewalk to school, they had to step aside when white people came close. She said bricks would sometimes be thrown through the windows of her house.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think this man, Martin Luther King, would be memorialized right there. I wouldn't have missed this for anything," Cox said.

The message of Obama's dedication speech touched on themes of fighting to overcome the hardships faced by King, and seemed to echo some of the challenges faced by the president himself. Those challenges include repairing a weak economy beset by high unemployment,t and fighting against a sense that some Americans have that the nation is in decline.


"As tough as times may be, I know we will overcome. I know there are better days ahead. I know this because of the man towering over us," he said at the end of his speech.

"Let us keep striving; let us keep struggling; let us keep climbing toward that promised land of a nation and a world that is more fair, and more just and more equal for every single child of God."

The ceremony, attended by a mostly African-American crowd, many wearing white hats bearing the slogan "Celebrate the Life, Dream, Legacy," was a mix of speeches from people who knew King and musical interludes from artists such as Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and James Taylor.

The memorial had been scheduled to be dedicated on Aug. 28, the 48th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream Speech," but Hurricane Irene forced a postponement.

About 1.5 million people are estimated to have visited the memorial's 30-foot-tall statue of King and its granite walls where 14 of his quotations are carved in stone since it opened.

The sculpture of King with his arms crossed appears to emerge from a stone extracted from a mountain. It was carved by Chinese artist Lei Yixin. The design was inspired by a line from the "Dream" speech: "Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope."

One of those attending was Ernie Thomas, 71, a retired 20-year Air Force officer and state government employee, who flew to Washington from Moreno Valley, Calif.

"I think the memorial was long overdue," he said while waiting in an early morning line to get in. He came with his wife and two adult daughters.


"I didn't think I ever would see this day, bottom line, in my lifetime because things were moving in a slow pace and we had a lot of obstacles along the way," he said. He told of "extreme racism" when he served in South Carolina for the Air Force from 1959 to 1964.

Other people who traveled to see the monument and attend the dedication came to both witness history and remind their children about a man whose legacy continues to affect people today, more than 40 years after he was assassinated.

Marcus Johnson, 42, from Spartanburg, S.C., a federal Defense Department information technology employee, drove up with his wife, Angela, and their children .

"I was born after the civil rights movement, but I want my kids to understand what their grandparents and my grandparents had to endure in their lifetimes to give them the privileges that I have right now and what they have," Johnson said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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