New National Mall Stop: King Memorial

The memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. opens to the public Monday. The scaffolding came off the 30-foot granite statue last week.

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In Washington, D.C. this morning, a memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. opens to the public. It is the first to an African-American on the National Mall, and the first there to honor a person who has not served as president.

NPR's Allison Keyes got an early look at the memorial.

ALLISON KEYES: When the scaffolding came off of the 30-foot granite statue last week, most people who stopped to take a look, like Sean Liu of Chicago, were impressed.

Mr. SEAN LIU (Chicago, Illinois): I think it's a really big deal. You know, it shows that America has come a long way.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah, I like it.

KEYES: Ronke Olatunja of Orlando says she's glad the memorial is larger than life, and she also thinks it's long overdue, especially in a nation where some think we're living is a post-racial society.

Ms. RONKE OLATUNJA: Are we really there? I don't really think we're there in regards to racism being dead, but hopefully this will kind of bring us closer. Maybe it's one step closer.

KEYES: In his Atlanta Congressional office, civil rights icon, John Lewis was hoping a memorial for his friend will serve as an example of the best of America.

Representative JOHN LEWIS (Democrat, Georgia): And that it would help us move back to that period, to that day, when you have blacks and whites, Asian-American, Native American, Latinos, Democrats and Republicans and Independents, Protestant, Catholic and Jews and others standing together.

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (Civil Rights Activist): One day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.

(Soundbite of cheering)

KEYES: Lewis also spoke of that historic 1963 march on Washington. He says it means a lot for the King monument to stand in sight of the Lincoln Memorial.

Rep. LEWIS: I was invited to go up on the scaffold, and I was able to touch the likeness of Dr. King, rub his head, rub his face, and I was moved to tears

(Soundbite of song, "We Shall Overcome")

KEYES: Eighty-nine year old Reverend Joseph Lowery co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King. Lowery said that he gave the benediction at the inauguration of President Obama, the nation's first black president. He clearly remember the message King sent in 1963.

Reverend JOSEPH LOWERY: He was issuing a summons to the nation to rise up from the lowland of race and color to the higher ground of content of character.

KEYES: Lowery says while the election of Mr. Obama was the nation's response to that summons, he says King would have much to say about the current state of the nation, beginning with the economy.

Representative ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON (Democrat, Washington, D.C.): King would have had a march all right.

KEYES: Washington, D.C. congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton who helped organize the 1963 march on Washington, says King would have been concerned about the widening gap between the nation's classes, and also...

Rep. NORTON: With our involvement in two wars, it's three wars with Libya. He'd have a great deal to say about war. He would have much to say to the Congress of the United States.

KEYES: Holmes Norton says that for her, the most important part of the memorial is that people will be able to read and contemplate King's words through quotes that are etched on a half circle of walls there.

Rep. NORTON: This was one of the few human beings whose words in fact by themselves made people reflect enough to change the great scar on our country.

Dr. KING: With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.

KEYES: The design of the memorial illustrates that phrase, and Congressman John Lewis says when the monument is dedicated on August 28th, King's very presence on the mall will be a sermon.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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