Kenneth Kluttz, wearing his “I Am a Man” shirt, got there first, purely by accident. He thought the site opened at 7 a.m. and was off by four hours.
They were among the hundreds of people — of many races and ethnicities, young and old, locals and tourists — who streamed through the King memorial Monday as it opened on a breezy summer morning.
They were part of a happy crowd that came with cameras, sun hats, children and strollers and thronged the memorial’s majestic statue of King to photograph and be photographed with the 30-foot granite likeness.
Strangers spoke with strangers and swapped cameras. The landscaped, four-acre site on the northwest shore of the Tidal Basin took on the atmosphere of a block party.
But there were also tears, as some people were overcome by the sight of King’s thoughtful-looking face, which is intricately carved out of a pale, 46-ton block of stone. The statue depicts King standing with his arms folded, holding a scroll and looking across the basin.
“It was important for me to be here for this opening . . . to actually see the memorial for myself and to say thank you,” said a tearful Nivens, 36, of Fort Washington, an Internal Revenue Service budget analyst, as she gazed at the sculpture.
One of King’s sayings on the memorial’s inscription wall is, “You can’t fight evil with evil; you have to fight it with love,” she said. “And you can’t fight darkness with darkness; you have to fight it with light, and that’s what he did, and now look.”
“It’s awesome,” she said.
The day began with a press tour of the $120 million memorial and remarks from some of its creators.
Henry Gilford, 66, is president of Gilford Corp. of Washington, one of four firms that helped build the memorial. He said he was one of the 10 children of a sharecropper who raised corn, cotton and peanuts on a farm in Ozark, Ala.
“To be now here on the Mall, to be a part of this, words can’t describe it,” he said. He said his career is a result of King’s work.
“I own a firm here in the Washington, D.C., area,” he said. “There’s no question in my mind [without] some of the things he did in the ’60s, there’s no way I could have . . . started a firm and grown it to the size I have.”
“I’m just giving you one example,” he said. “And that is myself, standing right in front of you.”
Monday’s opening began a week of celebrations and commemorations leading up to the dedication of the memorial Sunday. [UPDATE, Aug 25: Dedication events have been postponed due to Hurricane Irene.]
Tens of thousands are expected to be on hand as President Obama unveils the “cloaked” memorial at 11 a.m. The dedication is taking place on the 48th anniversary of the day King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington.