Building the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial

For those working behind the scenes on the King memorial, its meaning runs deep

"People who knew Dr. King personally, all of them look at it [the memorial] and say, 'That's him,'" says Lisa Anders, senior project manager. (AP Photo / Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

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The concept for the memorial is actually rooted in a line from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” The main entrance starts out wide and gradually funnels through a 12-foot wide opening in a “Mountain of Despair,” carved from sand-colored granite.

“The symbolic meaning behind that is to give the visitor the experience of feeling like going through a struggle,” says Anders. “If you can imagine a large crowd here, everyone is trying to get through to see the memorial.”

Then, through the Mountain of Despair, closer to the Tidal Basin, is a 30-foot-tall “Stone of Hope,” made to appear as if it was pulled from the mountain. Lei’s sculpture of King emerges from the side of the stone facing the water. His depiction of King, suited and standing, arms crossed with a stern expression on his face, is realistic, right down to the veins bulging on his hands.

“People who knew Dr. King personally, all of them look at it and say, ‘That’s him,’ ” says Anders. She has given several advance tours, including one for me. Earlier in the day that I visited, Stevie Wonder had come to touch the face of the sculpture. The day before, some Tuskegee Airmen walked the grounds. Thousands of visitors are expected to attend the dedication ceremony and many more in the weeks to follow.

A 450-foot dark granite wall bows like a parenthesis around the Stone of Hope, and inscribed on it are 14 quotations spanning King’s career—from the Montgomery bus boycotts in Alabama in 1955 to the last sermon he gave at the National Cathedral in Washington, just four days before his assassination in 1968. The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Foundation assembled a group of historians, including Clayborne Carson, keeper of the King papers at Stanford University, to help decide on a selection of statements that speak to the themes of hope, democracy, justice and love. “Until we reach a point where the world realizes Dr. King’s dream fully, those quotes will be relevant to future generations,” says Anders. “The foundation’s goal was to make this a living memorial.”

The cherry blossom trees that bloom around the Tidal Basin in the spring are a popular draw for tourists, and over 180 additional trees—which peak, coincidently, around the April 4 anniversary of King’s assassination— were incorporated into the memorial. “They really make this place come alive,” says Anders.

Walking through the memorial, I see why Anders calls the site a “freebie” for a designer. The monument’s strengths are compounded by the powerful company it keeps. Passing through the Mountain of Despair, one can see the Jefferson Memorial, and then to the east is the Washington Monument.

Yet, as McKissack points out, the King memorial has a different message from the rest of the National Mall, with its tributes to presidents and war heroes. “I think this memorial is a piece of us as Americans that has not been captured before,” she says. “Love and peace and humanity—we have aspects of that around the Mall, but his whole memorial is about that. You can’t walk away from here not feeling it.”


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