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A Dream Come True: Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Finally Unveiled on National Mall

Called “America’s Front Yard” by Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the National Mall is the beating park heart of the Nation’s Capital and draws over 24 million[1] visitors a year.  The National Mall stretches west from the foot of Capitol Hill at the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial to encompass the Mall itself, the Washington Monument Grounds, the Tidal Basin area, and West Potomac Park before terminating at the Watergate Steps behind the Lincoln Memorial.  Unfortunately this “front yard” never really had a front gate or front door to invite one in until the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was unveiled last week at the Tidal Basin.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial “Stone of Hope.” Credit: National Park Service.

Fourteen years in the making (a record really, it took over 40 years from Congressional approval until its dedication in May, 1997 to complete the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the last person monument built at the Tidal Basin), the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is a fitting tribute to a man known for combating racial inequality and advocating for freedom, justice, and love.  It is the first memorial on the National Mall devoted, not to a United States President or war hero, but a citizen activist for civil rights and peace.

A fan-shaped entry court guides visitors to the main entrance of the memorial, first through the “Mountain of Despair,” two massive, roughly arch-shaped granite bookends, symbolizing the struggle faced in the quest for peace and equality.  From within the struggle, a piece of the colossal boulder has been removed and thrust into the open plaza.  This “Stone of Hope” includes a 30-foot tall statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., emerging from the granite and facing southeast, away from the main entrance.  The separation of the “Stone of Hope” is meant to look as if it has been pulled out of the arch of the “Mountain of Despair.”  The statue is angled slightly so that visitors first encounter a quotation by King, “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” before they encounter King himself.

The 450-foot long green granite “Inscription Wall” arcs on either side of the “Mountain of Despair,” engraved with fourteen quotes from Dr. King’s speeches and writings, embodying the universal themes of love, justice, democracy and hope.  The four-acre memorial faces inward, away from the Mall, and also includes the addition of more than 180 new cherry trees, ensuring a continuous burst of blooming blossoms around the Tidal Basin come spring.

The memorial takes the final spot on the shores of the Tidal Basin, sitting on the northwest corner beside the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.  Its location on a diagonal axis from the Lincoln Memorial, where King gave his landmark “I Have a Dream” speech, to the Jefferson Memorial, inscribed with the unfulfilled “promissory note” of the Declaration of Independence: “that all men are created equal,” creates a visual “line of leadership” between three men whose ideals shaped the nation.  The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial cost $120 million to build and is expected to draw an estimated five million visitors each year.

Before the first granite blocks were brought over from China, the site required extensive infrastructure improvements.  The original soils in West and East Potomac Parks came from dredged river bottom during the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project that created Hains Point, the Washington Channel, and the Tidal Basin.  Because the ground has a very low capacity to carry any weight, the King memorial was built on more than 340 concrete pilings driven to bedrock, approximately 50 feet below the plaza level of the memorial.

Over the past 126 years, 12 monuments and memorials have been constructed on the nation’s most symbolically rich ground, each reflecting an important moment in U.S. history.  The addition of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial adds another layer to this irreplaceable piece of our American fabric, providing the first person of color and only non-president, a well-deserved place in the American pantheon.

[1] This figure includes visitors to the Memorial Parks as well as the National Mall.  Visitorship to just the National Mall is 10 million people per year. (From 2010 City Park Facts).

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