By Petula Dvorak and Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
Two presidents, a renowned poet and lions of the civil rights movement joined thousands gathered on the Mall yesterday to mark the spot where a memorial will be built to honor Martin Luther King Jr., the visionary pastor who beseeched the nation to live up to its principles and earned a place in the pantheon of American history.
Ground was broken for a memorial to the slain civil rights leader to be built along the edge of the Tidal Basin, midway between monuments to Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. It will be the first on the Mall honoring an African American and the first that does not memorialize a president or a war hero.
Ignoring the gloomy weather, people wearing dapper hats and winter coats came by Metro, by bus, by limousine. Fathers brought sons to impart a history lesson. Celebrities waved and smiled. And dignitaries spoke of a movement sparked by a man trying to be a good minister.
President Bush said the memorial will give King his "rightful place among the great Americans honored on our Mall." He said King's message of justice and liberty "continues to inspire millions across the world" and was not silenced even when he was felled by an assassin's bullet.
"Dr. King was on this earth just 39 years," the president said, but his ideas are "eternal."
The crowd of several thousand attending the ceremonial groundbreaking gave a standing ovation to former president Bill Clinton, who signed the bill authorizing the monument on the prestigious piece of land tucked in the Tidal Basin's famous ring of cherry trees.
"It belongs here," said Clinton, basking in the crowd's enthusiasm. Jefferson "told us we were all created equal," and Lincoln abolished slavery; but both "left much undone," Clinton said.
He added that contemporary lessons could be learned from King's legacy of nonviolence. "Civil disobedience works better than suicide bombing," he said. And the memorial to King reminds people that "the time is always ripe to do right."
Clinton and Bush were joined by talk show host Oprah Winfrey, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), poet Maya Angelou, three of King's children and designer Tommy Hilfiger, among others.
On her way to the stage, gingerly stepping around the edges of mud puddles, Winfrey said she came to the event because "I've lived the dream."
On stage, she elaborated: "It is because of Dr. King that I stand, that I have a voice to be heard," Winfrey said. "I do not take that for granted. Not for one breath. . . . Because he was the seed of the free, I get to be the blossom."
King's children said they hoped the memorial would be a place where millions of children would come to learn about their father's work and the beginnings of the civil rights movement.
"Our father just wanted to be a great pastor," said Bernice King, his youngest child. "Little did he know, he became a great pastor to a nation."
The memorial is scheduled to open in 2008, though fundraising is still underway and the day's ceremonies did not mark an official beginning of construction. Organizers have raised about two-thirds of the $100 million needed to develop the four-acre site, which will include a sculpted likeness of King and references to many of his most memorable speeches, including the famous "I Have a Dream" oratory on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Some in the audience remembered the sweltering August day in 1963 when King made that speech a half-mile away. The young men who marched with King are now well into their 60s and 70s. Organizers have been pushing for a monument for more than 20 years and want participants in the movement to witness its completion, said Harry E. Johnson Sr., president of the Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation.
That opportunity slipped away for King's widow, Coretta Scott King, who died in January.
Lawrence Guyot is a 67-year-old District resident who worked with King in Mississippi. He said that anyone who lived through the mayhem and strife of the 1960s and said that they had envisioned such a memorial back then was "telling a lie."
Perhaps little Dontae Ryan II, 3, will tell others someday that he, too, witnessed history. Dontae watched cartoons on a portable DVD player as his father, Dontae Ryan I, listened to three of King's children speak yesterday. Ryan attended along with hundreds of other members of Alpha Phi Alpha, the fraternity that King belonged to and that has shepherded the effort for a memorial for two decades.
"He might not remember that he was here," Ryan said of his son. "But I can show him the pictures. I think it was necessary to be here, as an Alpha and as a black man."
Beritu Haile-Selassie, 54, came to the Mall and stood outside the security gates holding a handmade poster to King that read "You dared to dream! Thank you!"
And that message -- to dream -- endures. Civil rights stalwarts Andrew Young and Jesse L. Jackson teared up recalling the man they had walked alongside to help tear down the walls of segregation. As the shovels dug into the ground, Young turned to audience members and urged them: "Keep turning the dirt. Keep turning the dirt."