Tens of thousands of people from across the United States came to the Mall to dedicate the Martin Luther King Memorial on Sunday, October 16, 2011 and we, Jerry and Pat Bayonne Johnson, were among them. The original dedication date, August 28, 2011, coincided with the 48th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington but was cancelled due to Tropical Storm Irene. The cancellation worked in our favor as we had reservations for a tour of the White House on October 8th and decided to stay for the dedication.
Many people began lining up along Independence Avenue in the wee hours of Sunday morning to gain entry to the public viewing area which was equipped with a stage and huge TV screens just west of the memorial. Spectators were encouraged to bring their own picnic blankets and chairs; we went to Bed, Bath and Beyond to purchase a cheap rug to sit on.
The site of the memorial is a four-acre plot on the northwest corner of the Tidal Basin, across from the Jefferson Memorial and next to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial. Called the Stone of Hope, the sculpture gets its name from a line in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “With this faith we will be able to hew out the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” At the entrance to the memorial two stones stand apart, representing the “Mountain of Despair.” A single wedge is pushed out in front and from there Dr. King’s 30-foot granite statue emerges. Fourteen quotes spanning Dr. King’s career are carved into walls of granite. None of the quotes are from the “I Have a Dream” speech.
Gwen Ifill, of PBS NewsHours, moderated the dedication ceremony. The program began at 9 AM and was preceded by an hour of “Morning Joy” hosted by journalist and commentator Roland S. Martin. The music was provided by the Martin Luther King Memorial Choir whose members were selected by audition from more than 30 churches and choral groups.
Members of the King family and former news anchor, Dan Rather who covered the civil rights movement spoke at the ceremony. Civil rights leaders such as U.S. Rep. John Lewis(D-GA), Julian Bond, U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, Marian Wright Edelman, Rev. Joseph Lowery, Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson also addressed the audience. President Obama was the keynote speaker and members of the cabinet attended. Musical and spoken tributes were made by Nikki Giovanni, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Cecily Tyson and Diane Carroll. Aretha Franklin sang Dr. King’s favorite hymn, “Precious Lord.” Choirs also performed the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing, The Battle Hymn of the Republic and We Shall Overcome.
Many of the speakers noted the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and called for a better response for jobs and better health care. “This is a great movement moment in this country,” said NAACP president Benjamin Jealous, “a moment where we are all fighting to ensure that we all have access to justice and that all people regardless of where they were born, are treated with human dignity.” Rev. Bernice King, Dr. King’s daughter, said “I’m hoping that when people leave here that they will be reinvigorated to make a certain adjustment so we can move our society toward that beloved community” and “we can move these walls of divisiveness.” President Obama praised Dr. King as the “black preacher with no official rank or title who somehow gave voice to our deepest dreams and our most lasting ideals.” Christine King Farris, King’s older sister, introduced herself as the person who knew King longer than anyone else alive. “He was my little brother,” she said. “During my life, I watched a baby become a great hero.”
Harry E. Johnson, Sr. president and chief executive of the Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, Inc. said, “Sunday’s dedication will be a wonderful way to celebrate the life, the dream and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King.” It was momentous and an experience of a lifetime. We listened as President Obama announced: “This day, we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s return to the National Mall. In this place, he will stand for all time.”