National Park Service Ranger Skip Miller was bringing the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial to life for visitors, using animated gestures to show how the likeness of King had been sculpted into a Stone of Hope and depicted as moving out from a Mountain of Despair.
“The striations on the sides of the monument are meant to show that the Stone of Hope is coming forward,” Miller said, his hands seeming to beckon the 30-foot-tall monument to move even more.
On this day, however, the mountain was also on the move — a volcano of anger and despair erupting in Ferguson, Mo.
Ida Short, who was visiting with her mother from Iowa City, had seen the televised images of residents protesting the shooting death of an unarmed black 18-year-old, Michael Brown, by Ferguson police.
Asked what she thought of the King Memorial when viewed against a backdrop of the protests, Ida replied, “I like King’s quote about the moral arc.” Taken from a speech King gave in the District in 1968, it reads in part, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Brown had been killed Aug. 9, and doubts that justice would be done had become so strong that Attorney General Eric Holder has scheduled a fact-finding visit to Ferguson on Wednesday.
Jane Yoder-Short was not quite as optimistic as her daughter. “Sometimes it’s hard to see where that arc bends,” she said. “How do we see the bend?”
A visitor traversing the curvature of the Tidal Basin would see memorials to King, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson and also come to a sightline that offered views of the Lincoln Memorial, which is located on the Mall nearby.
Each of those leaders issued urgent calls for an end to racial injustice in America, repeated through the centuries as words now engraved in stone fell on deaf ears.
“You can see King is facing Jefferson,” Miller pointed out. “Jefferson had slaves, but he also wrote that all men are created equal.”
The U.S. Constitution, with its Bill of Rights, was ratified in 1788 and counted black slaves as “three-fifths” human. It would take another 80 years, a Civil War, a 13th and a 14th Amendment to free the slaves and get those other two-fifths added on.
An inscription on the Lincoln Memorial says: “One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.”
Back then, Confederates were willing to destroy the Union to keep black people in chains. Today, sympathizers still proudly fly the rebel flag.
Of course, more than the flag has endured.
Standing in the King memorial plaza, two classmates from the Hult International Business School in Massachusetts began debating the meaning of the word “racism.”
“I think it is racial prejudice and discrimination, all rolled together,” said Jada Tally, who grew up in Lafayette, La.
Joseph Rasich, who grew up in Geneva, Ill., a wealthy Chicago suburb, called it “a system that serves to advantage one racial group over another.” Prejudice, by comparison, he said, “is just a form of ill feelings towards people with different physical characteristics.”
Asked how Ferguson looked from his point of view, Rasich said that conditions in the predominately black, low-income town made the advantages he enjoyed as a white man all the more stark.
“My parents don’t agree, but I know that being white in this society gives me privileges that other races of people do not enjoy,” he said. “Add to that my social and economic assets, and you can’t imagine the opportunities I have to expand those privileges and pass along the advantages to the next generation.”
The contrast was chilling. Many black residents in Ferguson could hardly imagine any opportunities. Now they were being cordoned off by a militarized police force and tear-gassed for protesting against injustice.
There was a quote from King on the inscription wall that seemed appropriate.
“True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.”
But the moral arc of justice did not appear to be bending toward Ferguson. Not yet anyway.
The clashes between protesters and police were getting worse, the mountain roiling with despair.
If only Ranger Miller could really make that Stone of Hope start to move.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.