From grandparents to babes in strollers, many carrying backpacks, blankets and banners, they camped out along Independence Avenue when the viewing area filled.
And people of all ages — gray-haired veterans of segregation and those who knew only stories of those times — listened as President Obama announced: “This day, we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s return to the National Mall. In this place, he will stand for all time.”
The crowd joined in as the president stood before the memorial’s three-story granite statue of King and, arms locked with the arms of others, sang the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”
The memorial, on a landscaped four-acre site set amid Washington’s Tidal Basin cherry trees, has been a
quarter-century in the making and is the first on the Mall to honor an African American.
It was a day of emotion, as organizers telecast black-and-white film of King’s famous 1963 “I Have a Dream Speech” to a crowd that included people who had been present for the original or had watched it on television as children.
There were many in the audience who recounted stories of bitter racial oppression experienced in their youth. Many said they never believed a monument to a man like King would be erected.
But they said they were proud that it had finally happened.
It was a day of prayer and song. Singer Aretha Franklin delivered a moving rendition of the gospel hymn “Precious Lord,” which she said was one of King’s favorites. Choirs also performed the African American song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
The dedication, originally set for Aug. 28, had been delayed seven weeks because of the Aug. 23 earthquake and then Hurricane Irene.
But, Obama said, “this is a day that would not be denied.”
The original dedication day had been picked to coincide with the 48th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, during which King delivered the “Dream” speech.
Carved by Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, the memorial opened to the public Aug. 22, and, despite some controversy, has been popular with the public.
On Sunday, people began lining up along Independence Avenue in the chilly hours well before dawn to gain entry to the public viewing area, which was outfitted with a stage and huge TV screens just west of the memorial.
Peggy Stovall, 61, who had flown in with a friend from Los Angeles, said she arrived between 2:30 and 3 a.m.
“We were late,” Stovall said as she waited in line, bundled in a coat and scarf against the morning chill. ‘We thought we should get here at 1.”
Stovall, a retired high school teacher, said she flew to Washington in August, only to find that the dedication had been postponed. She said she was determined to come back.