Martin Luther King Jr. memorial to be dedicated -- finally

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After 15 years of planning and sculpting, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial will be formally dedicated Sunday morning with a ceremony including a keynote address by President Obama and a musical performance by Aretha Franklin.

The West Potomac Park festivities are split into a dedication program at 9 a.m. EDT, hosted by PBS NewsHour’s Gwen Ifill, and a dedication ceremony at 11 a.m. that will include Franklin and Obama.


The first part will include speeches from members of the King family, former CBS news anchor Dan Rather, who covered the civil right movement early in his career, and civil rights leaders including CRep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Hurricane Irene delayed the original dedication date for the 30-foot stone relief of King on Aug. 28, the 48th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Though crowds for this weekend are expected to be much smaller than the 250,000 visitors the National Park Service estimated would come in the summer, organizers are setting up Jumbotrons in West Potomac Park for the thousands still expected to come to the free and ticketless event.

“Although our plans have been scaled back, I am confident Sunday’s event will be momentous for all who join us in West Potomac Park and those who tune in from across the country and around the world to witness this long-awaited moment in our nation’s history,” Harry Johnson, president of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, said in a statement.

In honor of King’s words “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” his memorial figure emerges from granite, flanked by taller mountains of granite, with his arms folded and eyes set on the horizon. A 450-foot-long wall behind it holds inscriptions of more quotations from King, none of which were taken from his well-known “I Have a Dream Speech.”

The $120-million memorial on the northwestern shore of the Tidal Basin, half a mile southeast of the Lincoln Memorial steps where King made his famous speech, has been open to the public since Aug. 22. Plans for its construction started in 1996 when Congress authorized the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity to coordinate the memorial, which was designed by San Francisco-based ROMA Design Group and sculpted by Lei Yixin of China.

Not everyone was an immediate fan of their work, including African American poet Maya Angelou.

She told the Washington Post that one of the quotations on the side of his sculpture, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness,” was reworded, taken out of context and makes King sound like an “arrogant twit.”

The exact words King used after being asked what he wanted said in his eulogy were, ‘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.’

Others have criticized the choice of master sculptor Yixin, most famous in China for his work on a statue of communist revolutionary Mao Zedong, and the unpaid Chinese workers who assembled it on site.

But, like it or not, King’s memorial and his words are now set in stone, and Washington is prepared to celebrate it.


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Photo: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial as seen in Washington, D.C., in this file photo. Credit: AP / Jacquelyn Martin