Construction of MLK Memorial Waiting on Park Service Permit

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The 144 blocks of granite are almost finished. The construction team is ready. The money is in hand.

All that is needed, say the creators of Washington's towering stone memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., is a building permit from the National Park Service.

On Tuesday morning, as U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan helped kick off a children's essay/art/video contest about the slain civil rights leader, memorial officials said they are eager to get started on the project, which has stalled in recent months.

Harry E. Johnson Sr., president and chief executive of the memorial foundation, wrote a letter this month to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who oversees the Park Service, requesting a building permit.

"I am hopeful, as I have been, that the secretary of the interior will take a look at this and say, 'There's no reason not to give you a building permit,' " Johnson said Tuesday. "I've done everything the Park Service asked me to do. I don't know what else I could do.

"I don't have an argument with the Park Service or anybody else," he said. "I just want to build a memorial."

Johnson said he has a meeting Thursday with Robert G. Stanton, deputy assistant secretary of the interior for policy, management and budget, at which Johnson said he hopes to "hear some good news."

The memorial, to be built on a four-acre, crescent-shaped site amid the cherry trees near the Tidal Basin, will feature a 2 1/2 -story granite sculpture of King, with two other large granite pieces in the background.

The sculptures, composed of 144 stone blocks, are 80 percent complete, said the project's chief architect, Ed Jackson Jr. The work is being fabricated in China under the direction of Chinese master sculptor Lei Yixin.

Jackson and other memorial officials visited the fabrication site this month.

"It's a massive work," he said. "We've never seen anything in stone in this country other than Mount Rushmore that can compare to something like this."

Jackson said three ships will be needed to transport the sculpture to the United States.

"We are asking all of our supporters and stakeholders, from the White House to Capitol Hill, to move this project into the next phase, which is construction," he said. "As far as we're concerned, we're ready to start as soon as they can deliver a construction permit."

"All I know is that we don't have one, and I think that we should," he added.

Johnson said the project has raised $106 million of the estimated $120 million cost of the memorial, and has a $12.5 million letter of credit from the Wal-Mart Foundation.

The memorial has been delayed while the foundation has raised money and local arts and planning commissions and the Park Service debated over what kinds of security would be needed. The Park Service, fearing such threats as truck bombs, wanted robust security along the lines of bollard barriers. The arts and planning commissions favor more subtle security that would honor the openness of King's philosophy.

Duncan and other officials invited youngsters from across the country to write an essay, create a piece of art or make a video about King's legacy. Nine winners in the "Kids for King" project will earn a trip to the District next year. Details are at

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