MLK memorial on Tidal Basin is taking a momumental place among giants

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2010; 9:50 PM

The towering statue is shrouded in scaffolding, and still incomplete, but through the tangle of steel and boards, you can see the veins in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s left hand, the knot in his necktie and the sculpted light in his eyes.

The 30-foot, 8-inch tall granite relief of King stands, for the moment, as if imprisoned by construction on the shore of the Tidal Basin, awaiting the moment of its dedication in summer.

But even unfinished, and on a gray day of wind, rain and mud, the new memorial to the civil rights leader seems to be taking its monumental place among others on the Mall.

Wednesday the foundation building the $120 million memorial across the Tidal Basin from the Jefferson Memorial provided the first official inside glimpse of the project, which is a little more than half-finished.

"This is a defining moment for all of us here," said Ed Jackson Jr., the executive architect.

Officials also announced that, if all goes as planned, the memorial will be dedicated on Aug. 28 - the 48th anniversary of the day King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington.

"How apropos it's going to be for us to dedicate this memorial on Aug. 28 and . . . turn title over to Barack Obama, the president of the United States," said Harry E. Johnson Sr., president of the King project foundation.

The memorial, 14 years in the making, is under construction on four acres amid the Japanese cherry trees that rim the Tidal Basin, off Independence Avenue.

Its centerpiece is a three-part sculpture, whose main element is the image of King named the "Stone of Hope," for a line taken from the 1963 speech. It shows King wearing a business suit, standing with his arms crossed.

That sculpture and the two companion sculptures called the "Mountain of Despair" are made of 159 blocks of pale granite that were carved in China by master sculptor Lei Yixin and shipped to the United States.

The blocks making up those three elements are almost assembled, Lisa Anders, senior project manager for the design-build team, said Wednesday as she walked among mud puddles, piles of building materials and giant construction cranes. The 46-ton block depicting King's head and shoulders was placed last week. But the sculpting is 80 percent complete, Anders said.

Officials said workers are in the process of placing the memorial's 11,280 concrete pavers and building the bookstore and information center. The project also is adding 185 cherry trees to the area, as well as 32 American elm trees.

Jackson, the executive architect, noted that the cherry blossoms typically bloom around the same time of year that King was assassinated. "The foundation wanted the design to be a living memorial," he said.

Jackson said the memorial will include inscriptions of 15 quotes from King. The earliest is from 1955. The latest is taken from a speech King gave in Washington on March 31, 1968, in the National Cathedral, four days before his assassination.

The inscriptions appear on 355 granite panels on a wall that arcs around the monument. Half have been installed.

The memorial will be illuminated at night.

The project has raised $108 million of the $120 million needed.

Asked about the shortfall, Johnson said: "We don't even think about [not getting] 120. We're positive-thinking folk around here. We're going to get 120. . . . I don't believe the American people will sit back and let this memorial go undone."

After Anders led visitors through the opening between the two "Mountains of Despair," which serves as a portal to the King sculpture, Johnson, 56, reflected on the final product.

"I saw it when it was in China," he said. "When you roll up on it, a tear does come up in your eye. You say, 'Oh, my God.'"

He said he had memorized the "I Have a Dream" speech as a child in St. Louis and was an eighth-grader the year King was assassinated.

Now, working on a national memorial to King, he said, "you never had any idea you'd be involved in something like this."

Also on hand Wednesday was Ofield Dukes, 78, a former adviser to King's wife, Coretta Scott King. Dukes said he sat near the civil rights leader at the Lincoln Memorial the day of the 1963 speech there.

He said he felt great excitement gazing on the statue.

"It's almost like a miracle," Dukes said. "It conjures him up. . . . But people will be, I think, just as impressed with the fact that this is a symbol of him, joining Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

"It's just unbelievable, and incredible to have this type of symbol of an African American civil rights leader," he said.

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