What they saw instead was stone and water, words and an iconic image on a picture-perfect summer day along the Tidal Basin.
Some were weeping. Others were taking pictures of the statue and each other and giving high-fives, lending the unveiling of the memorial the feeling of one big block party.
“It’s beautiful, exquisite,” said Paulette Davis of Washington. “I’m remembering where he led us. This exceeded my expectations.”
More than 25 years in the making, the granite memorial features a 30-foot-tall statue of King on a landscaped parcel on the northwest shore of the Tidal Basin, just southwest of the World War II Memorial.
By noon, visitors began streaming in by the hundreds — folks with their children, kids in baby carriages, the old and the young. They marveled at the statue, which is silhouetted against a bright blue sky.
Alana Thomas, 11, of Falls Church, who came with her younger sister and her mother, said she liked everything about the memorial. “It shows how important Dr. Martin Luther King was,” she said.
Sculptor Lei Yixin, who attended the opening with his son, who acted as his translator, declared himself satisfied.
“This is my most important project. Not hardest, most important,” he said in Mandarin. He added that he hopes visitors notice first the expression on Dr. King’s face, “looking forward,” and then his hands.
Because any Washington event isn’t notable unless it draws protesters, a handful of members form the bricklayers union passed out pamphlets and T-shirts protesting the fact that American stone carvers were not chosen to create the monument and the stone in the monument was quarried in China.
The King memorial will be open Monday until 10 p.m. and Tuesday and Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday it will be open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., but will close Friday and Saturday in preparation for its official dedication at 11 a.m. Sunday. President Obama is scheduled to unveil the “cloaked” statue before tens of thousands of onlookers, including members of the slain civil rights leader’s family.
The entrance line to the memorial forms on Independence Avenue SW near Ohio Drive, and rangers are in place to direct visitors into the site.
The memorial is the first to an African American on the Mall, and is situated about half way between the Jefferson Memorial, on the other side of the Basin, and the Lincoln Memorial, to the northwest.
The main statue of King depicts him standing with his arms folded, holding a scroll, and looking out across the water. It is built of 159 giant blocks of granite that were quarried in China and carved by master sculptor Lei Yixin. The blocks were shipped to the U.S. and the statue was assembled on the site late last year.
This week will see days of celebrations and commemorations as dignitaries from around the world gather to pay tribute to King, who was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, and remember his role in the Civil Rights movement.
The dedication will take place on the 48th anniversary of the day he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in 1963, and many people who were present then are expected in Washington this week.
This post has been updated.