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

By Michael E. Ruane
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.

The 30-foot-8-inch statue of King is the centerpiece of the memorial and is named the "Stone of Hope," for a line from King's speech: "With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope."

It is made of individually carved chunks of granite, seamlessly assembled like a giant set of children's blocks, depicting King in his customary business suit with his arms folded, holding a scroll in his left hand.

The sculpture is based on a famous 1966 photograph of King taken in his office in Atlanta, standing at his desk, with a picture of Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi on a wall in the background.

But the copy of the photo used for the project turned out to be made from a reversed negative, Jackson said, and the right-handed King is shown holding a pen in his left hand. By the time the error was discovered, Jackson said the sculpture was too far along to switch the pen to the right hand, so the scroll was substituted.

Although not as large as some of the city's equestrian monuments, it is more than 10 feet taller than the 19-foot statue of Thomas Jefferson in the Jefferson Memorial and the 19-foot-6-inch statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial.

Placed amid the Japanese cherry trees and facing southeast across the Tidal Basin, the King memorial is likely to become a new symbol of Washington, an international tourist attraction and the fulfillment of dreams when it is dedicated Aug. 28.

And although the design and construction effort has been a long, collaborative journey, Jackson has been its chief navigator.

He headed the process to select, and then adjust, the design concept. There were so many submissions - about 900 - the project had to use Verizon Center to display them all.

He headed the team that picked the Chinese sculptor - controversial because the artist was neither black nor American. Unfazed, Jackson believed Lei was the best for the job.

Tall and scholarly in his suit and bow tie, Jackson weathered criticism from the federal Commission of Fine Arts that the original sculpture model was too severe and totalitarian. He had the furrows between King's eyebrows removed to soften the image.

He watched weeks go by while the blocks of granite sat in a Chinese seaport awaiting a ship, and 47 more days pass as the stone finally made its way by sea to Baltimore. He stayed awake nights worrying as cold weather approached, threatening the pace of the stone work.

He often mediated between the Chinese sculpting team and the American construction crews - between art and work, the ideal and the doable.

All the while, his word was on the line.

Ten years ago, when the design was unveiled, he promised Coretta Scott King, the statesman's widow: "I will not let you down."

Now the "Stone of Hope" is in place, adjusted here and there, yet monumental, as Jackson had promised.

But the job is unfinished. "I'm still a soldier in the trenches," he says.

Jackson sees himself as the facilitator, the background guy, the realist.

Achieving anything more than 50 percent of what you want is always a success, he says, and you only need 180 degrees of freedom on a project. "No commander, no organization will give you 360," he says.

Jon Onye Lockard, Jackson's old professor of African American art and culture at the University of Michigan and a project adviser, says: "He relishes being the man behind the man. . . . He is not one fed by ego."

A retired Army officer, Jackson has many maxims. Another is: "Don't confuse the battle with the war."

Indeed, the "war" is not over. Although the main sculpture is finished, more construction and landscaping must be completed.

But this month, the "Stone of Hope" was covered to shroud it from public view until August. And with the dedication in seven months - on the 48th anniversary of the day King delivered his speech - the end of the struggle seems near.

One day in December, as snow fell from a gray sky, Jackson stood on the scaffolding and reflected on the face that has been hewed from the stone - an African American face to stand for the ages with the other monuments to the nation's creators.

"It's like your wildest dream came true," he said.

"When you dream for something . . . you dream that ultimate . . . but you don't always get the ultimate," he said.

At 12:50 p.m. Nov. 25, a giant red construction crane slowly lifted granite block C-61 into the clear blue sky above the construction site on Independence Avenue, southwest of the World War II Memorial.

Officials from the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, which is raising money for the project, the MTTG construction team and the National Park Service looked on. A few bystanders had children with them. A man set up a video camera. A passing motorist stopped his car and got out to watch.

As the crane raised the block, the stone was slowly turned to face the Tidal Basin, revealing in the bright sunshine the head and shoulders of Martin Luther King Jr.

It was a powerful moment. As the stone was lowered onto the body of the sculpture, Jackson, in a white hard hat, jeans and a yellow hazard vest that said "Jaxon" on the back, paced the scaffolding with his camera.

With this block - the most iconic of the 1,600 metric tons of granite that had been cut, carved and shipped 11,000 miles from China - the image of King was complete. But this was only one of the 159 blocks, pre-carved for the most part, that make up the three major sculptural elements.

The memorial, the brainchild of King's old fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, was authorized by Congress in 1996. Situated on a four-acre site, it also has an inscription wall, landscaping and, soon, a bookstore and visitors center.

In the central sculpture, King appears to be emerging from the granite - a special, slightly darker-hued stone called G-681 that was selected, Jackson said, to better display the features of an African American. The two background sculptures - together called the "Mountain of Despair" - resemble a small mountain with the center cut out.

All three are made of granite facades with concrete cores. Solid sculptures that big would have been too heavy to transport. Just one of the blocks weighs 55 tons - about the same as a large whale.

Work crews assembled them over the course of about six weeks last fall by setting the stones in a kind of circular pattern one ring at a time. The first ring was then filled with a concrete core. Once the concrete was dry, a second ring was set, filled with concrete and so on.

Much of the assembly was supervised by Lei, a weathered-looking, deep-voiced artist in his mid-50s who sports long, black hair and is renowned in China for his work.

When Lei agreed to take on the King project, Jackson proposed a contract. Lei said a handshake was all he needed. Although protocol required a contract, the two men formed a close bond.

Lei said he was impressed when Jackson himself met his team at the airport in September. In China, he said, a subordinate would have been sent.

"Shoot," Jackson laughed, when told of Lei's sentiment. "You want me to run out and get groceries for you? I'll do that, too."

In fact, after Lei arrived, Jackson drove him to a Chinese grocery store in Fairfax to buy food for the apartment where Lei was staying. And Jackson saw him off at the airport when Lei returned to China on Monday morning.

One day in the mid-1960s, Jackson, then a 16- or 17-year-old high school student, was driving his mother's Chevy Impala, not far from home, when a white policeman pulled him over.

He can't remember exactly why, and the policeman did not give him a ticket. But he remembers rolling down the window and the officer saying to him: "Where you going, boy?"

Even as a sheltered teenager, he felt the sting of "boy." Yet it was the only tense racial encounter he can recall of growing up in Mississippi during the violent civil rights struggles of the 1960s.

McComb in those days made national headlines with bombings, beatings and shootings aimed at civil rights workers, black and white. The Washington Post called it "Darkest America" after a white mob attacked blacks desegregating a bus station.

But the town's black enclave of Burgland where Jackson grew up was an oasis.

"Our parents created an environment for us in McComb that we didn't feel as if we were missing anything," he said. "It was typical of how African American parents shielded their children from the forces of racism. . . . As far as you were concerned, the world was great."

The neighborhood had everything - its own movie theater, burger joint, grocery store, cleaners. And one day when Jackson was in the sixth grade, it even produced in the classroom seat in front of him Cynthia Robinson - the girl who would become his wife. They have been married 40 years and have four children.

Born in Illinois, the son of a brick mason, Jackson grew up in McComb by happenstance. His parents had taken him to visit relatives there when his father was killed in a car accident. Jackson was just 9 months old.

His mother stayed in McComb with her family, went to college and became an elementary school teacher. She briefly remarried and had a son, Jackson's stepbrother, Charles Ray Clay, with whom he grew up. Jackson left McComb in 1967 to go to college and graduate school, and travel the world as an architect with the Army.

Two decades, and an era, passed.

On Aug. 24, 1990, while he was working on his PhD dissertation and living in Texas, his 62-year-old mother was stabbed to death in the ranch-style home on Argyle Street where she had raised him, safe from the menace of the outside world.

The assailant was probably a burglar, Jackson said, and likely from the neighborhood. McComb police said the killer has not been caught.

Jackson went home to handle the arrangements. But the neighborhood seemed different, he said. It no longer seemed like the place that had nurtured him, no longer like the small community where everyone knew everyone else.

It no longer felt like home. "While you were away," he said, "home changed." In a way, it was gone.

And in a way, he said, he's been searching for home ever since.

Yet Jackson knows that, like King, what he seeks is an ideal, a dream.

"I have a dream of a small town," he said. "This is what King's all about. He's talking about an ideal. Some might call it Utopia. I don't necessarily see it that way. Because I don't necessarily look for . . . a hundred" percent.

But the ideal still must be sought, he said, because the search can change things. And sometimes, even for a realist, the ideal can be reached.

In December, as he stood in the construction scaffolding with snow gathering in the folds of the massive sculpture, Jackson thought about what had been achieved.

"When I told Mrs. King, 'I will not let you down,' " he said, "this is what I had in mind. . . . Not 50 percent. This."

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