'A Stone Of Hope' Arrives On The National Mall

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Corey Dade, national correspondent, NPR
John Asante, producer, NPR

The memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. is the first to immortalize a non-president and African-American on the National Mall. NPR's Corey Dade and John Asante report on the dedication of the new memorial, the story of its creation and what visitors can expect.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts, in Washington. Neal Conan is away. The new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the National Mall doesn't officially open till Sunday, weather permitting. But this week, thousands of visitors braved crowds and thunderstorms and even an earthquake to get a sneak peek.

The memorial's dedication caps over 20 years of planning and fundraising and lobbying by a dedicated and persistent group. Most of them are members of King's former college fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha.

The new memorial is just down the road from the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963. Among the many famous lines in that speech, King said...


Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.

ROBERTS: And that metaphor, the mountain of despair and the stone of hope, is the foundation of the memorial's design. We'll hear from folks who are visiting the memorial, despite the rain here in Washington, in just a minute. But we also want to hear from you. What does the memorial to Martin Luther King mean to you? Do you plan to visit? If you've seen it already, what do you think?

Tell us your story. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, how Steve Jobs and Apple changed your life. But first, the new Martin Luther King Memorial.

NPR's very wet John Asante is standing by now at the memorial. John, where are you, exactly?

JOHN ASANTE: I actually got into the memorial. There are a lot of gates around. But, you know, me and a couple hundred people, I would say, have made it through, despite the inclement weather. Actually, the sun's breaking out right now, shining, you know, a little bit of light over the stone of hope and the mountain of despair.

And, you know, the turnout's pretty good. People are snapping photos, you know, getting together. You've got families. You've got different groups, people of all races, creeds, colors out here. It's a great sight, despite the weather. And I've gathered a couple people up, and here is our first one.



BROWN: Annie Woodley Brown. Hi.

ROBERTS: Hi, Annie Woodley Brown.

BROWN: I'm recently retired professor - hello to you.

ROBERTS: I'm Rebecca Roberts, nice to meet you, after a fashion. So tell me why you came to see the memorial.

BROWN: Well, I'm a recently retired professor from the School of Social Work at Howard University, and it was just great to be able to come in the middle of the day. But I really wanted to see this memorial, because I think it came at a very important time in the history of our country.

Having witnesses the debt ceiling debate and the seemingly callousness toward poor people, toward social justice, I just thought it was important to be here because I think Dr. King represents a better time in our history that we could look to, because I've actually been feeling some despair.

But I'm coming here and putting myself back at that time when the march on Washington took place, and there was hope then. And I hope that this celebration can rekindle hope now.

ROBERTS: And describe to me what you see there. Where are you standing?

BROWN: Well, I'm standing right in front of the statute, and I see a very - a good likeness and a - with a resolute stance, and I see hope. I don't see despair.

ROBERTS: Well, I want to ask you about that resolute stance, because I was there last night, and there was a disagreement among the people looking up at - and it's a huge statue. It's a 30-foot statue of Dr. King - about whether he looked sort of stern and angry, or whether he looked thoughtful or compassionate. What do you think he looks like?

BROWN: Well, I don't see any anger. It - I think it's what I said. I think there's a kind of resoluteness about it, and there is a thoughtfulness, like, what's next.

ROBERTS: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today. Could you pass the phone on for a second?

BROWN: I sure will.

ROBERTS: Thank you.

ASANTE: Thanks. Hey, it's John again. With Annie is her husband Bob. We're going to get him in just a second.

ROBERTS: And John, while we've got you, describe how the memorial is placed there on the Mall. It's right on that body of water called the Tidal Basin that people probably know more for the cherry trees than anything else. What do you see looking out across the water?

ASANTE: Exactly. As you said, yeah, the Tidal Basin is right behind us. You're seeing the Jefferson Memorial. It's in that line of sight, with two other memorials. And as you turn to look at the memorial, you see that the mountain of despair is - well, it's in two parts, actually. And it's set further back from the stone of hope, where you see Dr. King etched in the large, 30-foot stone, as we've said.

And, you know, you look at pictures, and you hear people talk about it, and it doesn't - until you walk through the mountain of despair, you don't really - I guess you don't really get the picture. You don't really feel how epic it is. It's huge. It's bold. It's something that I've never actually experienced.

But anyways, I don't want to ramble too much. We're going to get another person on the phone. Here's Bob.

ROBERTS: All right. Hi, Bob. It's Rebecca Roberts. Thank you for taking the time to join us. What does the memorial mean to you?

BOB: My pleasure. Well, it means a lot to me, because I was not able to come to the great march on Washington. I participated in a memorial of that march, and it's great to be here for this. I am a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, who more or less instigated the planning and actualization. So...

ROBERTS: And maybe you can tell us...

BOB: ...I'm just proud to be here.

ROBERTS: During the planning process, because the fraternity was so active and instrumental, were you getting messages for years saying be a part of this effort, contribute money, organize a cause?

BOB: Yes. Yes, I was.

ROBERTS: Well, it seems to have worked. I mean, it's taken a while, but really, largely to the efforts of Alpha Phi Alpha, there it is.

BOB: Right. Well, we're proud of it, and it was worth the effort. The monument itself is magnificent, and the theme is great. The visualization of the words, a stone of hope out of the mountain of despair, you can - if you're down here, you can see how the stone was inside the mountain, but it has been removed, and in the stone of hope, there's the statute of Dr. King.

ROBERTS: It also, obviously, in the flight path of Reagan National Airport, as we just heard. But you can sort of visualize that stone of hope, where the statue of Dr. King is set apart, could fit into the mountain of despair if it slid back a few feet.

BOB: That's correct. It could fit right in there.

ROBERTS: Well, thank you so much for talking to us there in the rain. We appreciate your time. Bob and Annie and John Asante, producer with TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us live, along with a couple of visitors from the Martin Luther King Memorial here in Washington, D.C.

And that is what we're talking about here today on TALK OF THE NATION. We want to hear from you. If you've seen the memorial, or if you plan to come see the memorial, join us. Our number is 800-989-8255, and our email is talk@npr.org.

Corey Dade is a national correspondent for NPR. He wrote a piece about the opening of the new monument and the long history of how it came to be, which you can find a link to on npr.org if you click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Corey Dade joins us now in Studio 3A. Thanks so much for being here.

COREY DADE: Thank you, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: There's been a lot of events leading up to what will be the official dedication, which was scheduled for Sunday. Now Hurricane Irene might be interfering with that. We're going to keep on top of that. But there was today, at the convention center, a big event, dedication ceremonies, honors many of the people who made the memorial possible. Who are they?

DADE: Well, this was sort of a mixture of an honoring of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity for bringing this about, but also kind of a family reunion, a homecoming for many of the luminaries and the activists big and small in the civil rights movement.

So you had everyone from Andrew Young, former ambassador, former mayor of Atlanta, former congressman and also a former top lieutenant of Martin Luther King, to Jesse Jackson. You even had members of Congress speak. You had a representative of the National Council of La Raza, the Hispanic civil rights organization. And you also had Eric Holder, of course, the attorney general of the United States, speak.

So it ran the gamut from civil rights luminaries, from members of the Obama administration, to corporate sponsors who were very instrumental in raising money for this.

ROBERTS: And I understand you had a chance to speak with Harry Johnson, who's the CEO of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation. That's the group that really got this built. What did he have to say about what went into this whole process?

DADE: I did talk to Harry Johnson, and he is not only the CEO and president of the foundation, he's also a former president of Alpha Phi Alpha. So he had, at different points, two hats to wear.

He talks very matter of fact, now that it's done, about the process, and it wasn't always that way. It's a long road. It started with, you know, a dining room conversation. You know, everyone talks about the Kitchen Cabinet of a presidential leader. Well, in this case, we're talking about a Dining Room Cabinet, as it were, meeting.

These were members of Alpha Phi Alpha, who were - who lived in suburban Maryland, right outside of Washington, and they had an idea to do a memorial. What's interesting is it didn't come originally from the idea of honoring Martin Luther King. The idea was: How can we get more people of color to visit the National Mall?

ROBERTS: Oh, really? I didn't realize that.

DADE: Right. So it was sort of a public purpose, there. It wasn't about King. It wasn't necessarily about, at first, Alpha Phi Alpha. So the first idea was if we're going to have more people of color come to the Mall, we need to have something for people of color to really be drawn to. So that's where they came up with the idea of a memorial.

The idea at first was to have one of King, but also to have other panels or some kind of display there that also honored other members of the civil rights movement, people like Dorothy Height or Rosa Parks. That didn't work out. They decided to focus it solely on King.

And from there, what's - what was interesting about this is back then, they said, oh, you know, if we raise about a million bucks, we'll be able to get there. We'll be able to pay for it and get it done.

ROBERTS: If only.

DADE: If only. Of course, we know now that the price tag ended up being $120 million, and that's not something any fraternity or any single organization can raise.

ROBERTS: NPR's Corey Dade is going to stick with us as we talk more about the dedication of the Martin Luther King Memorial. In a moment, we will also take your calls at 800-989-8255. If you've seen the memorial, or if you plan to come visit, what does a memorial to Martin Luther King mean to you? You can send us email, as well: talk@npr.org. Or join the conversation on the website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts. This week, visitors got their first glimpse of the new memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. here in Washington. It was a long time coming, but after more than 20 years of work, King becomes the first non-president and the first African-American to be immortalized on the National Mall.

King's image carved in stone now sits on the northwest corner of the Tidal Basin between the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial. And as you step into the opening of the memorial, you're surrounded by some of King's notable statements, including this one from his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964.


JR.: I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.

ROBERTS: Martin Luther King, speaking in Oslo, Norway. Those words, among other quotations from Dr. King, are now inscribed on the wall of the new memorial. NPR national correspondent Corey Dade is with us. He's been covering the events leading up to this week's dedication.

And we also want to hear from you. What does a memorial to Martin Luther King mean to you? Our number is 800-989-8255. And our email address is talk@npr.org. And Corey, we were talking a little bit about some of the challenges that Harry Johnson and his foundation faced in just getting the whole project off the ground. One of the things that really is remarkable is how central the site is. You don't build much right there in the middle of the National Mall. How is it that they got that prime real estate?

DADE: Well, that's what the government used to call Area One. And originally, the foundation wanted that site. It's the Tidal Basin. They applied for a permit for that, and the National Capital Park Planning Commission, which makes the approvals for these types of monuments, actually rejected that.

They designated an area kind of on the east end of the Constitutional Gardens, near the, still on the National Mall, for the project. That - by coincidence, perhaps - is also an area that's near a predominately African-American neighborhood.

And they said that's where the open land is. The fraternity and the foundation had to go back to this commission and actually come up with a new set of arguments for it. And that was kind of a hairy predicament for a while. And so their argument was that, number one, we want this monument to be in a line of leaders, and this is a monument for peace. We didn't want it near the war memorials. We wanted it for a man who has the stature of the presidents of the United States.

So they got some of their fraternity brothers, who were members of Congress - like the late Congressman Julian Dixon - and others to apply a little bit of political pressure to the Department of Interior, to the National Capital Planning Commission, and they got that decision reversed. And so they got Area One, which is right at the Tidal Basin. It's prime real estate, as you said.

ROBERTS: We have an email from John, who says: I will likely not be seeing the unveiling of the MLK Memorial. However, I'm fortunate to play soccer next to the site every week and will have many opportunities to see it afterward. I'm very lucky in that regard, and don't plan to waste the chance to see it so easily.

But the truth is, Corey, unless you are on the adjacent soccer field, as John will be, you can't see it from far away. It's not one of those shining lights on a hill, the way, say, the Jefferson Memorial across the Tidal Basin is.

DADE: That's right, and it's by design. They wanted - they wanted the King visage to actually face inward, into the Tidal Basin. They wanted to create what they call an experience. And obviously, John from NPR who's there now talked about it. When you go into that space, you go into a whole different experience that sort of transports you.

And the idea is King is looking out on the Tidal Basin, but he's also looking across the Tidal Basin to the Jefferson Memorial. And it's no coincidence that you have an African-American leader who is known for civil rights and whose legend is based on civil rights looking across to the Jefferson Memorial, a memorial for a man who built much of his political capital and much of his estate and his riches, et cetera, on slavery. That was not an accident.

ROBERTS: And actually, it'll be interesting, when the rain stops - there's a tradition of renting paddleboats on the Tidal Basin - to see the Jefferson Memorial from the water. I'll be a great view of the MLK Memorial from the water. That's really the way to see him, facing you, face-to-face.

DADE: And that's the idea. That's the idea. They wanted to - they also didn't want to create what they call a static memorial, where it's just one building. And if you notice the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, all have architectural flourishes from other countries, from Rome, et cetera. And they wanted this to be completely different.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Ruben(ph) in Fort Lauderdale. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Ruben.

RUBEN: Hey, it's nice to be on.

ROBERTS: Well, welcome.

RUBEN: Yeah, I'm actually flying out tomorrow for the unveiling, for the dedication. And I hope the weather holds up. But, you know, he's just - Martin Luther King spoke to me just, you know, for years and years now. And, you know, I'm an immigrant. I come from Argentina. I'm Jewish, but more than anything, I'm an American. And I think Dr. King spoke to what's possible in this country, you know, what's possible in the world, for people to get along.

And he spoke of people of different races and different religions getting along. And, you know, it's - we don't see a whole lot of it these days, but, you know, we have to hold out some sort of hope for that dream.

And, you know, I think that dream kind of lives inside many of us. And so I wouldn't miss it. And, you know, if they're going to have it, I'm going to be there. So I'm just hoping that, you know, the winds won't be too bad.

ROBERTS: Yeah, well, bring an umbrella. But thanks for calling, Ruben. Corey, you've been seeing this all week, people who feel that they have to be here.

DADE: Absolutely. What you see is a - you see a mix of things. You see people who actually had some kind of historical tie to this. Maybe they were here for the march on Washington many years ago. Maybe some of them had some role, maybe a small role, in the civil rights struggle. Maybe they were direct beneficiaries, maybe the first black person to attend their particular high school, or the first African-American to attend their particular college. And so you have any manner of reasons.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Kenneth in Baltimore. Kenneth, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

KENNETH: Hey, thank you for having me. I'm planning to attend the dedication. I'm a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. And I'm also bringing my nephew and my brother. So I think that a lot of words that aren't associated with Dr. King are - is a patriot, and it's something that, being 40, I benefitted from his patriotism after his death because he saw wrong and did everything in his power to change that wrong in the country that he was born in and demanding the rights for his other countrymen.

And I think that exemplifies a patriot, and that's what I want to pass on to my 10-year-old nephew. And obviously, having received literature for years as a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, it's a culmination of the efforts of the fraternity that I'm really excited that this event has come to fruition.

ROBERTS: Yeah, Kenneth, thank you for your call. I'm starting to get the sense, Corey, that members of Alpha Phi Alpha are everywhere.

DADE: Well, they do count their membership at about 125,000 strong. And it's interesting that the - even though they're on their way to raising about $120 million for this project, it did begin with Alpha Phi Alpha. They began their own fundraising campaign from chapter to chapter, across this country.

By the end of it, the chapter alone put up about $4 million, and that became seed money. And without that $4 million, they would not have been able to form their foundation. They would not have been able to come to the federal government with any sort of legitimate proposal. That money, that seed money, was absolutely integral to this process.

ROBERTS: We have a question from Jeffrey in Ohio, who says: I'm deeply appreciative of the necessity for a monument to Dr. King. It's way overdue. But I'm astonished by the lack of any critical discussion of who was chosen to do the sculpture. I'm shocked that the commission was not awarded to an African-American artist. I'm not all sure what legacy is being communicated by such a decision. Corey?

DADE: That's a big issue. They did decide to commission a Chinese journalist, and the idea is...

ROBERTS: Sculptor. Yeah.

DADE: Journalist. I am that person. He is not. The idea was the design would be - it was done through competition, the design itself, and an American-based firm based in San Francisco is the one that won that competition, but that the sculptor comes from whoever's the best, period, no matter where they are.

And the argument of the foundation, which chose this particular sculptor, was that Martin Luther King's legacy is an international one. So to the extent that we can engage people from other countries in the building of this edifice just reinforces that.

ROBERTS: We also have an email from Dave in Wisconsin, who says: The statue's overbearing and bombastic. The pose makes King look like an African strongman. They effect is one of an antithesis to what he stood for. King would be embarrassed if he could see it.

DADE: Well, he does have a point, except for the fact that King's family is not embarrassed. One of the complaints that King's family - from Coretta Scott King, his late widow, to his children - had of all these different likenesses and busts, et cetera, of King is that they weren't necessarily very accurate. They felt like the particular artists who came up with these particular homages kind of took their own interpretation of King and maybe idealized, maybe embellished, et cetera. And so they looked at this as being perhaps the best likeness of him not only physically but also as far as his tone and what he was hoping to project to the world.

ROBERTS: And we should (unintelligible) this statue because it is remarkable. In addition, to just being massive, King is posed with his arms crossed. He's got a rolled of piece of paper in one hand that sort of reads like maybe it's a speech he's working on. And his brow is visibly furrowed. He does have a serious expression on his face. And I think there's something about that arms-crossed stance. People have said on, you know, comments and blogs and things that it looks like a statue of Lenin or something. That it's this throwback to a magisterial pose that isn't appropriate.

DADE: Right. The totalitarian dictator pose, as it were. I think I would understand that, but I think it's pretty obvious to understand that King had no dictatorial background at all. He didn't run any type of government. And if anything, he stood in the face of totalitarianism. I think that the idea here is to really show the man as he was. If anyone looks at footage of him, this is a man whose warmest, softest, most humorous side, which his friends knew, was only revealed in private.

He led a public life almost all the time, and it was filled with body language that was about the business of getting things done. He lived under a constant state of physical threat. Obviously, he had been stabbed before. He had been assaulted. So the idea that this man would appear to be stern shouldn't be too surprising. Art imitating life in this case.

ROBERTS: And the image does come from a photograph. It comes from the cover of the autobiography of Martin Luther King...

DADE: Absolutely.

ROBERTS: ...by Clayborne Carson.

DADE: Right.

ROBERTS: We have email from Janey(ph) in Vancouver who says Martin Luther King touched everyone in America, not only did he speak for civil rights for black Americans, but his efforts increased the rights for women, for other people of color and for people with disabilities. In short, every American family contains one or more of these groups, so his efforts lifted us all in equality and opportunity. His fight might not be over, but his efforts deserve honor on the National Mall.

And this, I think, brings up the other aspect of the memorial we haven't really talked about, which is alongside the Mountain of Despair and the Stone of Hope there are these low walls with King quotations carved into them, each just a sentence or two, but from his speeches and writings over the years.

DADE: Absolutely. The idea was to make this a sort of living monument as it were. And, you know, fortunately, this is a man who was for his short period in public life was absolutely prolific. He was a prolific writer. He was a scholar, but also he was a philosopher. And so he was able to just unfurl just countless amounts of metaphors for his vision and his mission. And so they took many of those and put them across these panels and inscribed them. And the idea was each - it's sort of in a circular fashion so that as visitors go through the area they go from station to station, and each panel that has an inscription is supposed to connote a different meaning, a different sense of place for each visitor.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And we go now back to TALK OF THE NATION producer John Asante who is standing at the new Martin Luther King Memorial. John, has the sun come out yet?

ASANTE: The sun has come out, and I am feeling the brute of it right now, standing in this rain suit. It's pretty hot, sweltering I would say, almost. But, you know, I'm doing well. I've moved to the - more so to the right side of the memorial. And as you had mentioned a couple of minutes ago, the inscriptions on the wall, the different quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King, there are about a dozen or so inscribed in the wall.

And actually, this is funny. In the last minute or so, former Ambassador Andrew Young is doing a little press conference thing with, I guess, a TV crew. And there's about 20 people surrounding him. So it's just great to see someone who's, you know, is a part of this - part of making this happen on the site right now.

ROBERTS: And do you find that people are gathering in front of those quotations? I saw last night when I was there that people wanted to have their picture taken with some of them.

ASANTE: Oh, yeah, most definitely. They're going around. People are snapping photos. They're getting in front of them, taking photos with their family. Many are people who are just stopping to read them. And in between the inscriptions on the wall and the Mountain of Despair, there's actually a mini waterfall. I'm not sure - I don't know if Corey has said anything, but I don't know if the waterfall on the east side represents anything, but it just a nice aesthetic touch to the whole memorial in general.

ROBERTS: And adds an element of sound to it as well.

ASANTE: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. You know, it's interesting. You don't really think of memorials unless there is a fountain, where the World War II Memorial, you know, across the Tidal Basin or, you know, around the corner from us actually has the water fountain near it. But, yeah, it does add a sense of sound that, you know, it actually gives some - more of, you know, more character to the mountain itself.

DADE: There is, Rebecca, a reason for the use of water. Water and stone, it's meant to be sort of, as I said, a living monument. And the use of water is to reflect sort of life flowing from - water is sort of a life-force, OK. Obviously, and the motion is - the idea is to connect in a sort of moving alive fashion each element of the complex there. And, of course, it also gets to one of King's quotes that's there about justice rolling down like a mighty river.

ROBERTS: There's also another living, breathing aspect to the memorial which is more cherry blossom trees, which, of course, the Tidal Basin is famous for, and so this site is appropriate for it. But one of the nice coincidences about this is that cherry trees tend to bloom right around April 4th.

DADE: Exactly. Right around April 4th. And that was by design. It happens that way anyway, but they wanted to take advantage of that unique D.C. tradition.

ROBERTS: We want to play a quick clip of one of the quotations from Dr. King which is inscribed on the wall that surrounds the Stone of Hope.


JR.: I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.

ROBERTS: That's Martin Luther King Jr.'s words. Those are now inscribed on the south wall of the new memorial on the National Mall. John Asante, standing by at the memorial, thank you so much for braving the weather to bring us some voices, and, Corey Dade, national correspondent for NPR who joined us here in Studio 3A, thank you both so much.

DADE: My pleasure.

ROBERTS: Coming up, the man most responsible for the iPod, iPhone and iPad just left his position at Apple. So who is Steve Jobs? What does his departure mean for the company he founded? We will talk about that next. I'm Rebecca Roberts. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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