Architect of Martin Luther King Jr. memorial is also a man with a dream

Ed Jackson, chief architect of the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, discusses the memorial's sculpting and creation. It will open to the public this summer.
Map of Martin Luther King Memorial site
The Washington Post
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 4:15 PM

The snow has melted from Martin Luther King Jr.'s forehead and has left only a damp spot on his suit-coat collar. His exquisite, granite face looks as flawless as a child's, but his eyes bear the far-off gaze of a man in thought.

With the sun coming out, it's a good day to work on the statue. And the master sculptor is using the fine, cone-shaped bit of his power tool to smooth the delicate contours of King's lips and etch the creases at the corners of his mouth.

Powdered stone blows away on the wind. The sculptor pauses and leans back to check his progress.

On the scaffolding high above the Tidal Basin, Ed Jackson Jr. watches the work. Through the trees to the north, he can just see the Lincoln Memorial, where the flesh-and-blood King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963.

It seems so long ago, that bygone summer when the young Negro minister challenged the nation to be true to itself, and so far from there to the memorial being completed on a wintry day almost five decades later.

Jackson, 61, the executive architect on the memorial project, was a teenager in segregated McComb, Miss., when King urged his 250,000 listeners on the Mall to hold fast until "justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

Amid the firebombings and church burnings that rocked McComb in the 1960s, Jackson lived in the oasis of a self-sufficient black neighborhood.

He was sheltered by his mother, Vera, who spoke sparingly of the trouble, but moved him to a back bedroom away from the windows out front. It was a neighborhood he would leave behind, though, and after his mother was killed there years later, it is one that survives only in his past.

And Jackson does not linger in the past.

Right now, the man who for 14 years has propelled the creation of Washington's new $120 million memorial to the slain civil rights leader, is watching his Chinese sculptor, Lei Yixin, complete King's face.

"He's worked on this thing so much, he doesn't even need a picture to finish the image," Jackson says over the buzz of Lei's sculpting tool.

Jackson says Lei will let no one else on his 10-person team work on the face, which is carved from a 46-ton granite block that sits atop the mammoth sculpture.

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