January 13, 2012
This past October, a new memorial opened on the National Mall. For the first time, the individual honored wasn’t a president, a legislator, a war hero or even a government official: it was preacher and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
Tonight, as part of the Anacostia Community Museum‘s 27th annual Martin Luther King, Jr. program, Harry E. Johnson, president of the National Memorial Project Foundation, will deliver an address on the making of the new memorial. The event, held at the Natural History Museum’s Baird Auditorium, beings at 7 p.m., and is open to the public.
Johnson’s speech, themed “Dedication to the Dream,” will cover the long—and often challenging—journey from the memorial’s conception to completion, he says. Alpha Phi Alpha, the fraternity King was heavily involved in during his time at Boston University, proposed building a memorial just after he was assassinated in 1968. Finally, in 1996, Congress gave the organization permission to build the structure on government lands in D.C. In 1998, the Foundation was established to lead this effort, and after many years of fundraising, a groundbreaking was held in 2006. Although the official dedication of the memorial was planned for August 2011, the arrival of Hurricane Irene in D.C. forced organizers to postpone it just a bit longer, with the final dedication coming on October 16, 2011.
For Johnson, finally seeing the project completed on the National Mall was immensely gratifying. The memorial is located on a direct sight line of the Lincoln Memorial to the Northwest and the Jefferson Memorial to the Southeast. “I think the memorial puts Dr. King in his proper perspective,” he says. “The way we see it, Dr. King was just as great a hero as any of the other presidents and war heroes that are honored. We chose to honor a man of peace.”
Johnson and the foundation hope that the memorial will serve as a place of both peacefulness and inspiration for visitors. “It’s a serene space. You don’t have a lot of loud noises—you come there to ponder and think,” says Johnson. “You can read Dr. King’s words on the walls and contemplate them.”
The design incorporates several elements inspired by words from King’s legendary speeches, sermons and writings. The centerpiece of the structure is the Stone of Hope, which features Dr. King carved on the surface and appears to emerge from the Mountain of Despair, as inspired by the famous line from his “I Have a Dream” speech: “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
On an inscription wall ringing the memorial, 14 quotations are included, spanning King’s career, from his rise during the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycotts to the last sermon he delivered, at Washington, D.C.’s National Cathedral, just days before his assassination. ”When you read Dr. King’s words—especially if you have not read them in a while—sitting there and reading them can be a heart-changing experience,” Johnson says. because of the fourth things we talk about: justice, hope, democracy, and love
On Monday at 8 a.m., a wreathing ceremony, featuring Johnson, Rev. Al Sharpton and Robert G. Stanton, senior advisor to the Secretary of the Interior, will be held at the memorial to honor Dr. King’s legacy on the national holiday dedicated to his memory and works.
After such a long wait, Johnson says he is flooded with emotion each time he visits the memorial, and is confident the effects intended by the foundation and the memorial’s designers have been achieved. “I think everybody is awe-struck when they visit it. People walk in and they get a lump in their throat as they recognize that you have a memorial to an African-American, and another great American,” he says. “I first saw it years ago, and I was just awe-struck. It’s a sense of ‘wow.’”
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.