A groundbreaking tribute

King's enduring legacy draws politicians, activists, celebrities

November 14, 2006|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, joined by former President Bill Clinton, civil rights leaders and members of Congress, broke ground yesterday for a memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the first such honor for an African-American leader on the National Mall.

The weather was raw, as were the emotions of people who had waited decades for such a tribute to the slain civil rights leader.

At one point, Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor and United Nations ambassador, spoke about King's determination to proceed with the civil rights agenda despite being emotionally drained and facing continual threats and attacks.

As Young recounted the movement heading to Memphis, Tenn., where King would be assassinated on April 4, 1968, he broke down and cried. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson wrapped a comforting arm around Young.

"An assassin's bullet could not shatter his dream," Bush told a crowd of about 5,000 people who braved a light rain, cold wind and mud to celebrate the monument, which will be built not far from where King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963. "As we break ground, we give Martin Luther King his rightful place among the many Americans honored on the National Mall.

"It will unite the men who declared the promise of America and defended the promise of America with the man who redeemed the promise of America."

The day at times had the feel of an outdoor church service. King's daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, delivered a powerful speech that prompted call and response from the crowd. Gospel singer BeBe Winans brought those in the crowd to their feet with his first musical selection.

Country singer Wynonna Judd looked around at the many makeshift tents for VIPs and guests, and remarked to the delight of the crowd, "Is this is an outdoor revival?" Even poet Maya Angelou got into the act, singing parts of a poem she had written for the occasion. Dignitaries shoveled dirt, some fighting back tears, as Winans sang Edwin Hawkins' classic "Oh Happy Day."

The memorial, set along the western edge of the Tidal Basin near the Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt memorials, is scheduled to be completed by spring 2008, said Harry E. Johnson Sr., president of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation.

The entrance will include a central sculpture called the "Mountain of Despair." Towering split rocks are meant to signify the divided America that inspired the nonviolent efforts of King and others to overcome racial and social barriers. King's college fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, had put forth the idea of a King memorial in 1984.

Clinton, who received a standing ovation, said it is appropriate that the memorial will stand between those for Jefferson and Lincoln, which honor the man who helped found the nation and the man who protected its ideals during the Civil War.

"It belongs here," said Clinton, who signed the legislation that authorized the King memorial in 1996. He also helped make it possible for the monument to be built on the National Mall.

The site originally proposed was the area occupied by RFK Stadium, said Darryl R. Matthews, vice chairman of the memorial's board of directors.

A few of King's fellow civil rights leaders, including Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, recounted for the crowd what it was like to know the man personally. Their colorful recollections moved listeners to tears and applause.

Among the dignitaries who received the loudest ovations was Oprah Winfrey. Her presence amplified the event's celebrity status and spoke volumes about how stars can vault certain causes to the mainstream. Her appearance on the podium set off a hoisting of hundreds of cell phone cameras.

"It's why I do what I do," she said of civil rights heroes such as King. "It's why I say what I say to millions of people all over the world every day.

"It is because of Dr. King and all of those who worked with him that I stand. And because of them, I have a voice that can be heard. And I want you to know that I do not take that for granted. Not for one breath."

Others at yesterday's ceremony included clothing designer Tommy Hilfiger, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, basketball great and broadcaster Bill Walton, and the Judds, who sang their Grammy-winning song "Love Can Build A Bridge." CNN's Soledad O'Brien and late night talk show host Tavis Smiley emceed the event, and Good Morning America co-host Diane Sawyer read a letter from former South African President Nelson Mandela.

The King project had languished for years because of financial concerns, but donations, largely from major corporations and celebrities, reached nearly $66 million this month.

General Motors has donated $10 million. Hilfiger has donated more than $5 million and is working with Simmons to help raise the remaining $35 million needed for the project. The NBA has donated more than $2.5 million. Filmmaker George Lucas donated more than $1 million.

"It's critical that America recognizes that this is the kind of consciousness that will move this country forward," Simmons said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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