Just as the sun rose Monday, people began to gather in small knots at the city’s new monument to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the slain civil rights leader. They gazed up at King’s granite likeness, looking southeast over the icy Tidal Basin.
One man, armed with a blanket and a thermos of hot chocolate to fend off the freezing temperatures, pulled out a copy of King’s “Letter From the Birmingham Jail” and began to read to himself.
Several sets of parents walked slowly with their kids, speaking in soft tones about the past, hoping to ensure that the next generation does not forget the struggle King represents.
“It’s one thing to be able to talk to children in the abstract,” said Norma Day-Vines of Upper Marlboro, visiting the memorial with her husband and 10-year-old daughter. “It’s something entirely different to have a physical structure that people can go to and see the importance of the civil rights movement and the importance of progress.”
For decades, people have sought to honor King’s birthday through volunteerism, prayer and stories told and retold. This year, for the first time, the country’s commemoration of the man and the civil rights movement he led was anchored by a physical place in Washington.
The Mall’s first monument to a black man, dedicated in October, served Monday as a destination for those who wanted to remember King and reflect on the changes he and so many others demanded and inspired.
Some of those who streamed through King’s memorial Monday had lived under Jim Crow laws. Barred from sharing lunch counters with white neighbors, they had ordered from take-out windows; prohibited from using the neighborhood drugstore’s front door, they had gone around back, exchanging money for medicine without ever setting foot inside.
“We’ve come a long way, the black race. It makes me proud,” said Elois Wiggins, 60, the daughter of a peanut and cotton farmer who grew up attending segregated schools near Suffolk, Va. She later marched in Washington to push for the establishment of a national holiday in King’s memory.
Now a Silver Spring real estate agent, Wiggins walked deliberately through the memorial, her video camera rolling, reading aloud each of the quotations from King’s speeches and writings inscribed in stone.
Wiggins said she wanted some way to show her two sisters, who live several hours away, what it feels like to look up at one of Washington’s gleaming white monuments and see “someone like you.”
King’s son Martin Luther King III laid a wreath at the monument in a ceremony Sunday, which would have been the civil rights leader’s 83rd birthday. On Monday, a group including Harry E. Johnson Sr. — who led the years-long effort to build the memorial — D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray and cable talk show host Al Sharpton also laid a wreath shortly after sunrise.
Visitors continued arriving all morning, many saying they came for the new site’s quiet permanence amid the monuments and memorials to the nation’s heroes and leaders.
“It’s the one place I will always bring friends and family,” said Sandra Evers-Manly, a cousin of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who was murdered in Mississippi in 1963.
Elsewhere in Washington and across the country, thousands of people remembered King by heeding his call to service.
The annual Day of Service in the District included dozens of volunteer opportunities. President Obama and his family installed library shelves and applied fresh paint at the Browne Education Campus in Northeast.
A few miles away at King’s namesake library in downtown Washington, hundreds of volunteers distributed clothes and food to people in need.
“Today it makes special sense that we’re not just laying in bed,” said volunteer Kim Peart, 35. “It’s a day to commemorate what King stood for and to be doing what he would be doing if he were here: serving.”
Nearby, Deborah Thomas, 51, waited in line for lunch, dancing in place to music thumping from a loudspeaker. Her red suitcase held clothes she’d been given earlier, including a couple of shirts for her daughter and a nice outfit for her husband to wear to church.
“I appreciate what people do for us,” Thomas said. “Some people don’t have, you know what I mean?”
Back at the King memorial, the number of visitors swelled as school and church groups arrived. Among them was the varsity basketball team from Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George’s County, whose coach had canceled practice to make way for a visit to the monument.
“Coach thought it was important for us to be down here,” said senior point guard Chaun Miller. “It’s history, you know.”
Norma Day-Vines and her husband, James, resolved to make an annual tradition of visiting this spot at the edge of the Tidal Basin.
They want their daughter Jalyn to understand the sacrifices people made to build a stronger and more just country. They want her to not take history for granted.
“When she becomes an adult,” Norma Day-Vines said, “she’ll be able to say, ‘This is where my parents took me every year so we can think about Martin Luther King and reflect on all the blessings we have — but also all the work we have left to do.’ ”