MLK Memorial 10th Anniversary causes visitors to reflect on King's legacy Over the last decade, the memorial has become a meeting point for activist groups and a spot on pilgrimages for world leaders and peacemakers.
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MLK Memorial 10th Anniversary causes visitors to reflect on King's legacy

MLK Memorial 10th Anniversary causes visitors to reflect on King's legacy

Charles Thomas III of Suitland, Md., carries a print of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he arrives at the monument during the March on Washington on August 28, 2020. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

On a recent morning in mid-October, at least three student groups, a half dozen tour groups, and a few locals on their morning runs all stopped along the Tidal Basin to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and took in the 14 quotes from King inscribed on the work.

Nearby, Secret Service members and Park Police prepared the area for this morning, when President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris delivered remarks at a ceremony celebrating the 10th anniversary of the memorial, an event with support from celebrities like singer Lionel Richie and designer Tommy Hilfiger.

A crew set up a stage where speakers would offer their thoughts on King and his legacy. But most visitors didn't even realize a major event was planned — they instead took in the power of the monument, the only one on the National Mall dedicated to a person of color.

"What he stands for is there's always hope and our nation will go on," said Bob Shimane, a 69-year-old man from Oregon who traveled to D.C. for the first time this week. He rested his hand on the granite statue, and reflected on the quote: "Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope."

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"He had faith in all men, not just Americans, but world citizens," Shimane said.

As helicopters flew overhead, Florida natives Rosie Mora and Tresha Powell reflected on how King's words and legacy has been used by politicians and pundits who stand for causes King himself never would have aligned with.

"There's a lot of noise surrounding his message, surrounding his struggle for equality," Mora said. "I think that that's what made me emotional — just how long the struggle has been. And I mean, the length of the struggle compared to progress, that's a little disheartening. So what I take from this is that the struggle definitely must go on."

Mora added that she's been encouraged by young activists who have followed in King's footsteps and "put their bodies on the line" to protest social injustices. "I'm sure he's looking at them and he's so proud of them."

Visitors stop and reflect on the quotes inscribed on the memorial's wall and statue. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

While the memorial officially opened to the public in August of 2011, Hurricane Irene and an earthquake postponed the opening ceremony until October. Approved by Congress in 1996, the memorial was a source of minor controversy when it opened. The designers had inscribed an edited version of a longer quote from King's chilling "Drum Major" sermon he gave in Atlanta two months before he was assassinated.

King told the congregation: "If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter."

The paraphrased quote carved into the 30-foot-tall granite statue read: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."

Many, including poet Maya Angelou, argued that the shorter version didn't capture the Civil Rights icon's true voice and spirit of humility. The sculptors and architects removed the quote (though, even that process came with some disagreements over how to sandblast and refinish the stone.)

Controversy aside, the memorial has become a meeting point for activist groups and a spot on pilgrimages for world leaders and peacemakers. Over the summer, it's been the site of an outdoor film series where families gather for movies like Black Panther and One Night in Miami, and thousands have marched on the memorial grounds in honor of the original March on Washington. Approximately three million people visited the memorial in 2019.

To continue King's work, the Memorial Foundation, which managed the memorial's construction, hosts conferences at HBCUs and launched a Social Justice Fellowship virtual program this summer that brought together 50 young people from across the country to learn from leaders and activists over an eight-week period.

"Because it's a living memorial, it means different things to different generations," says foundation president and CEO Harry Johnson. "How apropos it was that after the George Floyd incident, a new generation came over in reverence and read the quotes around the wall, and took out of this King's words and a new sense of responsibility toward justice?"

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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