At Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, a joyous crowd

August 22, 2011

Gray-haired Madeline Coleman got up Monday and played her old record of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches for her visiting grandson as he ate breakfast. Then she grabbed a disposable camera and hopped on the Metro for the event on the Mall.

Kwanzaa Nivens had scoped out the parking situation at the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial days in advance and had four options. She went with option No. 2 — the paddle-boat parking lot.

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.

This week, the site will be open to the public from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday and from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday. It will be closed Friday and Saturday in preparation for the dedication.

Officials have said as many as 250,000 people might attend the unveiling and the week’s events.

Some are coming as part of church groups. Some are coming with the intent to renew King’s call to social justice. Many say they simply want to be part of history.

Khalilah Veneable Collins of Louisville was planning to visit with her two children and mother. Collins and her mother are members of the Montford Point Marine Association, which was created to promote the legacy of the first African American Marines.

“As a child, I fell in love with Dr. King and what he stood for and what he did for this country,” Collins said. “I try to pattern myself, to some degree, after him. His writing, his speeches and his legacy have a serious influence on the way in which I do my work.”

Sean Hunter of Charlotte, a pharmaceutical representative, described his planned visit to the memorial as a pilgrimage. He was going to travel to the District with his wife and three children.

“The significance of having this monument is huge. To recognize the struggle of what he went through says a lot,” he said. “It says that America is finally recognizing him amongst other leaders.”

But many present Monday did not have far to go.

Coleman, 68, a retired Labor Department analyst who attended the 1963 march, lives in Tenleytown.

She said that as her 16-year-old grandson, Anthony, ate breakfast Monday, she played him parts of King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered the night before his assassination in Memphis in 1968.

“It was pretty interesting just to watch him,” she said as she waited in line for the memorial to open.

She said she grew up in Pittsburgh during the 1950s and ’60s, when there was name-calling. One local restaurant would not serve blacks, “even in Pittsburgh.”

Now, “when you really think about the fact that your grandchildren are doing well and have friends of all races and can go everywhere they want to go,” she said, “it doesn’t get any better than that.”

Staff writer Patricia Sullivan contributed to this report.

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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