The 30-foot centerpiece for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial has Dr. King standing, arms crossed, with a stern look on his face.
The centerpiece is based on a line from King’s “I Have A Dream” speech: “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” The “Stone of Hope” stands past two other pieces of granite that symbolize the “mountain of despair.” Visitors literally “pass through” the Mountain of Despair on the way to the Stone of Hope, symbolically moving through the struggle as Dr. King did during his life.
However, as one moves through to the standing Dr. King, the look on his face does not look like the face of a person who has achieved all that has been hoped for. It is a look that says there is still more to hope for.
Sunday’s dedication of the Martin Luther King Memorial quickly transitioned from a celebration of a man’s life and legacy into a clear reminder that King’s work towards economic and social equality is unfinished.
Ten thousand chairs were set up in a field near the memorial site and were all filled. Many people stood in overflow sections. Organizers anticipated about 50,000 attendees in contrast to the cancelled August ceremony, which had been expected to attract 250,000 audience members.
“An earthquake and hurricane may have delayed this day, but this is a day that would not be denied,” said President Barack Obama.
Thousands of everyday citizens, some arriving as early as 5 a.m., attended the memorial ceremony. The demographics of the event were diverse. There were individuals of all races, children enjoying a day out, the elderly feeling a strong connection to the importance of the celebration, and others who simply just wanted to be part of the positive atmosphere.
Many sat in the low 70-degree weather with clear skies and heard Martin Luther King’s children and other civil rights leaders, such as Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson, encourage the nation to carry on King’s fight for economic and social justice. They noted that today’s America is not yet the dream that Martin Luther King had envisioned.
“The nation has lost its soul when it tolerates such vast economic disparities, teen bullying and having more people of color in prison than in college,” said Martin Luther King III.
King’s son added that while it was great to have a holiday, memorial, and many streets and schools named after his father, people must stress the importance of not only recognizing Martin Luther King Jr. as an idol, but also his ideals.
Rev. Jesse Jackson said, “He gave us a high standard to live up to, in terms of activism.” said.
While the thousands in attendance were receptive to the various speakers and performers, the atmosphere hinted that all eyes and ears were waiting in anticipation for President Obama’s speech.
The MLK Memorial Dedication came at an interesting time in America as multiple movements, such as Occupy Together and a new emphasis on the War on Poverty, are bringing awareness to the economic injustices present in America – injustices that Martin Luther King Jr. helped fight to alleviate.
In addition, the presidential election of Barack Obama gave some American people hope that King’s dream had been realized and that Obama would carry on King’s legacy. With such comparisons to Martin Luther King Jr., the audience and media both anticipated how President Obama would relate today’s United States to the legacy of King.
President Obama arrived with Michelle Obama and their two daughters. Before the president made his way to the smaller stage between the memorial, he and his family took a tour of the monument, which was led by King’s daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, and the rest of his family. The audience at the main stage gave their full attention to the screens as the First Family made their way to the smaller stage.
Aretha Franklin took to the stage and sang “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” a song that she said King commonly requested and that was performed at King’s funeral. After Franklin’s performance, Memorial Project Foundation President and CEO Henry Johnson introduced President Obama, who approached the podium with much applause.
In a speech that seemed to make many connections between Dr. King’s civil rights struggles and Obama’s political struggles, President Obama said the nation was facing many of the same issues that Dr. King fought against.
The president first addressed the importance of the placement of the memorial, reminding the audience of the historic March on Washington.
“Look at the faces here around you, and you see an America that is more fair and more free and more just than the one Dr. King addressed that day,” Obama said.
President Obama then reminded his listeners that Dr. King’s work and progress was met with much disappointment, difficulty and criticism. He reminded the nation of a time when Dr. King was labeled as an agitator, rabble rouser, radical and even a Communist, in addition to being attacked by other African Americans for his views.
The president then made the connection between injustices that Dr. King fought against to the injustices that the United States faces today.
“We gather here at a moment of great challenge and great change,” Obama said. “In the first decade of this new century, we have been tested by war and by tragedy; by an economic crisis and its aftermath that has left millions out of work, and poverty on the rise, and millions more just struggling to get by.”
“And so on this day, in which we celebrate a man and a movement that did so much for this country, let us draw strength from those earlier struggles. First and foremost, let us remember that change has never been quick. Change has never been simple, or without controversy. Change depends on persistence. Change requires determination.”
The president addressed many of the nation’s current issues, such as rebuilding the economy, fixing the school system, making health care more affordable and accessible, and establishing fairer economic opportunity for all citizens.
President Obama urged the nation to not be “discouraged by what is,” and to remember Dr. King’s “insistence on the oneness of man.”
“And so at this moment, when our politics appear so sharply polarized, and faith in our institutions so greatly diminished, we need more than ever to take heed of Dr. King’s teachings,” the president said. “He calls on us to stand in the other person’s shoes; to see through their eyes; to understand their pain.”
“But he also understood that to bring about true and lasting change, there must be the possibility of reconciliation; that any social movement has to channel this tension through the spirit of love and mutuality.”
Towards the end of his speech, the president commented on why Dr. King was deserving of such a memorial. He also urged to nation to carry on Martin Luther King’s legacy in order to fulfill King’s dream and influence changes that many Americans hope to witness.
“I know we will overcome. I know there are better days ahead,” Obama said to applause. “Let us keep striving. Let us keep struggling. Let us keep climbing to that promised land of a nation and a world that is more fair and more just.”