The Washington Post

The eternal words of Martin Luther King jr. are carved in the stone of his new statue

The tips of Nick Benson’s steel-toe boots are scuffed. His grimy fingers stick out from worn bicycle gloves. And as he presses the carbide bit of his pneumatic hammer into the granite, his forearms are covered with powdered stone.

Benson, wearing brown hard hat, green earplugs and white mask, is standing on scaffolding at the new Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial using his piston-driven chisel to carve the letter E, in the word HOPE, into the stone.

It is a beautiful word, he says, one taken from a phrase in King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. “It’s sort of the resonate word for the entire memorial,” he says, and it’s the word he wanted to carve himself.

Plus, it’s the name of his 11-year-old daughter.

It’s also the last word on the inscriptions that he and his assistants are cutting into the west face of the memorial’s three-story statue of King — “OUT OF THE MOUNTAIN OF DESPAIR, A STONE OF HOPE.”

Nick Benson carves what he views as the crucial word into the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial: “HOPE.” (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The $120 million memorial, 14 years in the making, is almost finished. It features a 30-foot 8-inch sculpture of the civil rights leader set amid the cherry trees on a landscaped, four-acre site on the northwest shore of the Tidal Basin.

It is scheduled to be dedicated before a throng of dignitaries and as many as 250,000 people on Aug. 28, the 48th anniversary of the day King delivered the “I Have Dream Speech” at the Lincoln Memorial.

On Monday, Benson, 46, a renowned third-generation stone carver from Rhode Island who did the inscriptions on the World War II Memorial, worked with a team of three carvers to chisel King’s words into the finished statue.

Benson said his father, John E., carved the inscriptions on the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in Washington and his grandfather, John H., carved the ones on the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington County.

The King statue’s inscriptions — one on the west side, one on the east — complement 14 others on the memorial’s two inscription walls, which are largely complete.

They are selections of the slain civil rights leader’s timeless speeches and sayings over the arc of his career. King was assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis.

Benson, a calligrapher and type designer as well as a carver, said he created a special typeface to enshrine King’s words. It is derived from Greek and Roman lettering.

“These are quotes for the ages,” he said. “This typeface is designed to work specifically at this size, specifically for this material, and it’s all about this memorial.”

The pale granite of the statue, quarried in China, has flecks of black and gray and a slight pink hue that gives it the nickname “shrimp pink.”

Benson, who started inscription work on the project last year and resumed this spring, first traced the words on the granite using carbon paper and a steel stylus.

The carving is done by Benson and his fellow carvers with hand-held chisels that resemble, and work like, small jackhammers.

Indeed, the work is a kind of benign combat between flesh and stone, said co-worker Paul Russo, 45, who displayed his shredded gloves, beat-up hands and fingertips wrapped in duct tape.

“We win” the battle, he said, laughing, “but there’s a lot respect for the other participants.”

Benson said, “Because stone’s so hard, there’s this idea that you have to beat it into submission.

“It’s actually kind of the opposite,” he said. “You do have to move it. And you do have to use a little force to move it. But when it comes to the finish . . . it’s a very, very delicate process. And you really have to finesse it.”

He said the team carves six or seven letters a day. The work is slow but enduring.

“It’s nice to think that after I’m gone I’ll leave a little something behind,” he said. “For a while. Nothing lasts forever.”

He quoted Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 19th-century poem, “Ozymandias,” about the fleeting nature even of things etched in stone.

“It’s really poignant,” he said, “especially from a stone carver’s point of view. . . . It’s about the fact that time will wash everything away.”

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.

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