Martin Luther King Jr. gave his last Sunday sermon at the Washington Cathedral 17 years ago, but his stellar, cadenced voice rang throughout the cavernous gothic archways once again yesterday during a ceremony that dedicated a statue in his honor.
The Howard University Chorale sang "Precious Lord" and "We Shall Overcome," the congregation of about 1,000 prayed and read responsive readings, and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who also is a minister, delivered the sermon.
The two-foot-tall limestone statue, with the inscription "I Have a Dream" just below, is in a niche in a section of the sanctuary dedicated to saints of all nations. Affixed above a 10-foot-high arch, the statue depicts King in pulpit robes with arms extended, as though he were preaching.
"The statue is a living memorial of what he did and what his spirit continues to do among us," said D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy, who led a litany during the service.
The highlight of the ceremony came when the words the slain civil rights leader spoke at the cathedral on Palm Sunday in 1968, four days before he was assassinated in Memphis, were resurrected via a tape recording:
"The goal of America is freedom. As rebuked and scorned we may be as a people, our destiny . . . is tied to the destiny of the country. Before the words of the 'Star Spangled Banner' were written, we were here. Our forefathers survived oppressive conditions. If slavery couldn't stop us then, the oppressive world we now face will someday fail . . . . With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope . . . . We shall overcome . . . because no lie can live forever."
King's words were spoken slowly, and there seemed to be an air of deep reflection in his voice. Still, his unmistakable and characteristic confidence showed through.
"It was one of the most stirring sermons I had ever heard," said the Rev. John T. Walker, Episcopal bishop of Washington.
Young said he remembered King's sermon vividly: "I had never seen him so depressed, so distressed." It was shortly after Memphis had erupted in racial conflict and violence, and King was preparing to go there to quell the tension and lead a march by black sanitation workers who were demanding equality and justice, Young said.
"He sensed the impatience of the black community and the insensitivity of the white community that were symbolized in the violence in Memphis," Young said, adding that King did not die in vain when he was assassinated by James Earl Ray on a motel balcony, with Young standing nearby.
In fact, King's death marked him as a martyr and accelerated social change, Young said: "The killing of the dreamer produced the fulfillment of the dream."
"The nation pulled together better by his blood than by his leadership," Young said. "Schools did not become integrated by his ministry. It was more a consequence of his death . . . that symbolized the shedding of innocent blood for the redemption of sins."
James Earl Reid, the sculptor who created the model for the King statue, and Vincent Palumbo, the master craftsman who carved it out of stone, both attended the ceremony.
Reid said yesterday that he hoped the statue would remind people of "the vision, the communication, the works [and] the life of Martin Luther King."