As Ira Matthews gazed at the shining, 30-foot granite relief of the man she most admired, her eyes began to water.
“Happy birthday to you,” she sang aloud to the statue of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., to the melody by Stevie Wonder. “Happy birthday to you!”
“We should all be singing that today,” she declared afterward. “Thank you so much.”
Matthews, 70, had come from Atlanta to witness the second inauguration of President Obama, politician of hope. But she relished her first chance to see the statue, which was unveiled barely a year ago. So Matthews left her bus group and the crowds at the Mall to walk to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, an Obama button on her heart but her eyes transfixed on another historic leader.
Under bright blue skies Monday morning, she joined a small stream of strollers on the grounds of the memorial for King — his looming visage pushing forward from two pillars of equal size, emblazoned with the words “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
Matthews cried, she said, because in her lifetime she had seen King demonized. But now he had been memorialized. She lived in a country where barriers were once placed on black people voting, and now she could cheer at the second inauguration of a black man elected president. It was Obama’s big day. It was King’s big day. And together, it was momentous.
“Dr. King had a dream, and this is my dream,” Matthews said. “I never thought I’d see the day when he would get so much respect. I wouldn’t even think about a black president.”
It seemed a coincidence of almost cosmic proportions. Visitors delighted in the symbolic fluidity of the day, milestones of racial progress stacked atop each other like the stack of Bibles — Abraham Lincoln’s and King’s — that Obama requested to use for his swearing-in ceremony. The concrete representation of King and the ethereal words of Obama’s inaugural address weaved themselves as two symbolic threads in America’s racial story.
At King’s memorial, there were no fawning crowds or booming renditions of patriotic songs. There were, instead, the tears of gray-haired folks and the silent beaming of visitors as they stood for pictures in front of the statue of the slain civil rights leader.
Teachers discussed the best way to reenact bus boycotts in classrooms (sort by the color of shirt, not the color of skin). Some wondered what an Obama statue might look like one day. The roar of the speakers from the large TV screens gave way to the trickle of tiny waterfalls.
Half an hour before the swearing-in, Rufus Horton, 68, snapped photos of the statue with an old-fashioned point-and-shoot camera.
He had vowed to come to this memorial with his niece, a New Yorker, who was too busy with medical school to attend Obama’s first inauguration. She wanted to come to see the first black president to so her young son, Elijah, would remember. At age 7, he was old enough to appreciate the magnitude of the moment — provided she could pry him from playing Spider-Man on his handheld Nintendo console.
Together, Horton and Elijah could be seen as a sort of intergenerational bridge to the moment. There the aging black man from North Carolina who once had been jailed during a sit-in and still considered the notion of a black president practically mythical. Then Elijah, who took it all for granted; he just knew Obama would win. That man in the statute behind him? He was much more myth than man.
“Martin Luther King, I think he was the first black presid-,” Elijah said, interrupting himself. “I mean, he won the peace prize. We learn about him in school.” Then he tugged his mother. He wanted to go back to the Mall to see Obama.
The family walked away minutes before the president was about to be sworn in. Foot-traffic slowed and only cheering could be heard in the background.
The Mall was crowded, too boisterous for Claudia Marroquin. The 28-year-old from Maine could find solace here, at the King memorial.
“I’m reading these words and I realize there’s so much we have yet to accomplish,’’ she said. She pointed to a quote from King’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, in which King expressed his belief that every person could have three meals a day, a decent education and a sense of freedom.
She hoped Obama would help fulfill those promises.
“I feel the best might be yet to come,” she said.
Beyoncé’s singing of the national anthem could be heard in the distance. Above, the sky had grown overcast. A little later, more people began to the visit the memorial, moving from the man who had coined the phrase “Yes, we can” to the man who led the dismantling of the days of “No, you couldn’t.”
They came, visitors from Georgia and Kentucky, New York and California, men and women of all races, to laugh and pose for photographs in front of the giant statue. And right then, everything about the day looked like progress.