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After long struggle, MLK has home on National Mall

Brett Zongker
After long struggle, MLK has home on National Mall
There will be a dedication ceremony for the memorial honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, D.C. on Sunday. (Photo: Robin Hamilton)

On the 48th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech, a towering memorial will honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a man of peace among the many monuments to wars and presidents in the nation’s capital. The road to this weekend’s dedication, however, has run through hurdles of all kinds — not unlike the long struggle over King’s legacy itself.

Since King’s death, there have been financial worries at the King Center in Atlanta, and legal fights over the use of his image and words and over control of the civil rights organization he co-founded.

Many people wanted to help shape King’s bricks-and-mortar legacy as well, the first memorial for a black leader on the National Mall. There were skirmishes over who would sculpt King’s likeness, where the granite would come from and who would profit from the mammoth $120 million fundraising effort as the family demanded a licensing fee to support its Atlanta priorities.

Overall costs for the memorial rose over time, and the government demanded tougher security amid threats of domestic terrorism, dragging the project 15 years from the time Congress authorized it in 1996 and 27 years from when King’s fraternity first proposed it.

Lesser hurdles have halted others who aspired to build monuments on the mall.

“We have persevered,” said Harry Johnson, a 56-year-old Houston attorney and Alpha Phi Alpha member who for the past 11 years led an effort that culminates Sunday with a massive ceremony featuring President Barack Obama. “Even though we’ve had dark days and dark clouds, we were able to always see a silver lining in the sky, knowing, understanding and believing it was always going to happen.”

One of the darkest days was 9/11, Johnson said, because the memorial foundation was set to go public with its fundraising campaign but had to put plans on hold as the country recovered. Then came the Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and other disasters, plus an economic downturn, all of which made raising donations even more daunting.

Race, too, was a factor in the struggle over how the memorial would be conceived.

The surprise selection of a Chinese sculptor for King’s statue in 2007 eventually drew protests. A black painter launched a petition to try to force a change, saying black artists should have first rights to interpret the memory of the man who did so much for his fellow African Americans. A bronze sculptor from Denver complained he was pushed aside. Human rights advocates chimed in, saying King would have detested China’s record on civil liberties.

Executive architect Ed Jackson Jr., 62, who oversaw the design process for 15 years, concedes he may have been naive to think others would easily see the power of sculptor Lei Yixin’s concept and the mastery of his work.

“Politics can actually change the color of your lens … and some of the comments were out of ignorance,” Jackson said.

Still, the memorial foundation maintained King was inclusive of all people and never wavered from the selection of a Chinese sculptor. Jackson said he tried to insulate Lei, even as a federal arts panel criticized the design as too “confrontational.”

Early tours of the memorial by church leaders and civil rights veterans gave Jackson a sense of affirmation he made the right choice.

King’s likeness rises a full 30 feet to watch over the memorial landscape. The 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner stands with his arms crossed, carved from a “stone of hope,” looking toward the horizon. The central theme is King as a symbol of hope emerging from a boulder — a “mountain of despair,” as King said in his 1963 “Dream” speech.

Visitors pass through a narrow opening in the “mountain” to symbolize the struggle for civil rights before entering an open plaza. They won’t discover King’s statue right away.

Designers intend for waterfalls to draw visitors to either side of the plaza to first see curving granite walls carved with 14 quotations from King, none of which is from the “Dream” speech — organizers said they wanted to focus on some of King’s powerful but lesser-known words, such as his Nobel acceptance remarks and his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Originally, Jackson planned to fill the plaza with magnolia, pine and crepe myrtle trees to tie the landscape to the son of Georgia. Later, he learned Washington’s famed cherry blossoms reach full bloom each April at the time when King was assassinated, so the design was changed to include 185 cherry trees.

The granite for King’s statue was chosen because when lit at night, it lends a brownish tone to King’s likeness. The stone, however, only exists in China, Jackson said; some wanted it to come from the United States.

King’s statue stands taller than other human figures on the mall, though it does not seem overwhelming, said Thomas Luebke, an architect who serves as secretary to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, an agency that approved the design. The memorial to King puts him squarely between those of Thomas Jefferson, who espoused ideals of equality but was a slave owner, and Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves in the Civil War.

“It’s nicely situated between the Jefferson and the Lincoln Memorial, so it’s part of that conversation” he said. “That corner of the mall has started to have a little bit of a theme about the ideas of our democracy between Jefferson, (Franklin D.) Roosevelt and now King.”

Eventually, Jackson hopes to add King’s voice to the visitor’s experience by introducing iPads or other devices with educational features and recordings of speeches while people walk through the plaza.

“Dr. King came along right at the height of the television era,” he said. “So we can take advantage of that.”

Soon after King’s assassination in 1968, his widow, Coretta Scott King, established the King Center in the basement of the couple’s Atlanta home to preserve his legacy.

Now located near King’s birthplace, a national historic site, it has become one of Atlanta’s most popular tourist attractions. Though Coretta Scott King did not live to see the King Memorial become a reality, her relentless efforts were the catalyst for such a project, said their daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, especially given the country’s feelings about her father during his life.

“He was one of the most hated men in America. He was considered an enemy of the government,” she said. “And here we are 40-something years later, and he’s being honored in this way by our nation. … So it certainly speaks to the magnitude of some of the progress that we’ve made in the area of race relations.”

The family has guarded King’s memory closely. While Coretta Scott King was an early champion of the memorial, the family’s efforts to seek fees from its fundraising briefly stalled the effort in 2001.

Later, the family secured an $800,000 licensing deal for use of King’s words and images in fundraising for the memorial. After The Associated Press revealed the unusual arrangement in 2009, Bernice King and Martin Luther King III said they weren’t aware of the details.

They said the deal was mishandled by their brother, Dexter King, but was meant to benefit the King Center, which has struggled with funding for repairs at the site where King is entombed.

At the time, Intellectual Properties Management, an entity run by King’s family, told the AP that proceeds it receives would go to the King Center out of concern that fundraising for the monument in Washington would undercut the center’s donations. Some donors and scholars still bristled at the deal.

King’s family has sued media companies for using the “I Have a Dream” speech without permission. Lawsuits also have been filed among the siblings over control of the estate.

Infighting and leadership troubles also have hobbled the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King helped found following the Montgomery bus boycott in the 1950s and played a major role in fighting segregation. Martin Luther King III was president from 1997 to 2004.

In 2009, Bernice King was elected president but eventually declined to take office over differences with the board. Some called for the group to disband. This month, the group named King’s nephew, Isaac Newton Farris Jr., as its president.

For all the troubles from concept to construction, King’s contemporaries said the memorial captures his message for a new generation, and it has drawn tears for many when they saw it for the first time.

Congressman John Lewis, who met King as a teenager and is the lone surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington, said the statue is the best likeness he’s ever seen.

“He’s not looking down, he’s looking straight ahead,” Lewis said. “Dr. King was an emancipator, he was a liberator. He liberated not just a people. He liberated a nation. His ideas, his message of peace and love are still liberating people. I think people will come from all over the world to be inspired to go out to act, to do something.”

When the Rev. Harold Carter, pastor of Baltimore’s New Shiloh Baptist Church, saw King’s statue for the first time, he was awestruck.

“Oh, God. You got him,” Carter said, looking up to King’s face, along with more than a dozen other pastors from the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia who helped raise more than $1.5 million for the project from their congregations.

“This is a king among presidents,” said Joe Ratliff, pastor of Houston’s Brentwood Baptist Church, who was with Carter’s group. “That’s what I think every time I see it.”

Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador who was an aide to King, has taken multiple trips to track the monument’s progress.

“The first time I saw it, I broke down and cried,” Young said. “It’s so beautiful. It’s such a fitting statement.

You know, he was always self-conscious about being short. … Now he’s a giant of a man. Isn’t that something?”

Associated Press