Martin Luther King Memorial Opens

After years of debate, fundraising and construction, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial opened to the public Monday

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block.

On the National Mall today, a historic moment. After years of debate, fundraising and construction, a monument to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. opened to the public.

NPR's Sam Sanders joined tourists and locals as they visited the monument and its four-acre site.

SAM SANDERS: The weather was near perfect at the official opening of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. The 30-foot sculpture carved out of 159 off-white granite blocks sat under a clear, blue sky cradled between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials on the National Mall.

Before the memorial opened to the public, Harry E. Johnson, Sr., president of the King Memorial Project Foundation, spoke to journalists.

HARRY E. JOHNSON, SR.: The memorial to Dr. King is the first on the National Mall to celebrate a man of color, hope and peace. And you can see, this location is powerful. I've said it time and time again. Location, location, location.

SANDERS: The memorial has had its share of controversy. Many have criticized the choice of sculptor, Master Lei Yixin. He, like the three large stones comprising most of the memorial, is Chinese. But Johnson defended the choice of the stones and of the artist.

SR.: We chose him because of what Dr. King himself said and that is, you should not judge a person by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character. We got the best man for the job to build it. And I hope you agree with me, he did a marvelous job.

SANDERS: The sense of history was strong on the site. Johnson himself is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the same fraternity Dr. King belonged to. And Deryl McKissack, a lead member of the Design-Build Team, felt a special bond to the project because of her family history.

DERYL MCKISSACK: So it's my great, great grandfather. He was a slave builder.

SANDERS: Visitors lined up about a block behind the memorial. In front of the memorial, people took pictures and peered through a fence. Leslie Cooper was visiting from California, looking through fence slats at the statue.

LESLIE COOPER: I wasn't sure what to expect, but I'm glad that they made it huge and very breathtaking and amazing. It's perfect.

SANDERS: Visitors said that some of Dr. King's dream is still unrealized, especially in difficult economic times. Tyrus Brown of New York didn't see joy in King's face.

TYRUS BROWN: He looks disappointed, which I think is probably because of what's happening today. You know, there's so much unemployment now. There's poverty. There's, you know, black-on-black homicides. And his expression on the statue looks - it looks like he's disappointed.

SANDERS: As the first onlookers made it into the four-acre memorial plaza, they stopped first at a wall of Dr. King's quotes. Many were well-known, some less so. One was a harsh critique of the Vietnam War. As visitors wound their way to the memorial, they stopped once they saw King's face. Necks craned for minutes at a time. Many wore shirts bearing King's image and some carried posters displaying his quotes.

Kwanzaa Nivens of Washington, D.C. was visibly shaken.

KWANZAA NIVENS: This is unbelievable. Oh, God. If he could just see today, you know, all that fighting was not in vain, you know. It wasn't in vain, Dr. King.

SANDERS: An official dedication for the memorial will be Sunday. President Obama and members of the King family are scheduled to attend.

Sam Sanders, NPR News.

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