WASHINGTON — A federal agency Thursday gave final approval to the site for a memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the historically hallowed ground of the national Mall--where it will join monuments to America's most revered presidents.
"Only in America can the grandson of former slaves end up on the Mall in a prominent position," said John Carter, project manager for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit group that has led the drive to build the monument. "This site puts Dr. King in a place of tranquillity, vision, historic significance and in a visual line of leaders between Lincoln and Jefferson."
The monument will be close to the site of the 1963 march on Washington, at which King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Unlike four Mall presidential memorials--among the most popular tourist attractions in the nation's capital--the King monument will be the first to honor an African American.
The National Capital Planning Commission's 10-0 vote removed the last federal obstacle to placing a monument to the slain civil rights leader among the pantheons of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt on the verdant area at the heart of the Mall.
The commission, which reviews every federal construction project in Washington, reversed its 7-5 rejection of the site in July, saying that a reworked proposal by the King project group satisfied the objections of dissenting members. The group was the final of three federal agencies, including the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Memorial Commission, required to grant approval for the King memorial location.
"Abe Lincoln freed the slaves, but Dr. Martin Luther King liberated an entire nation," Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a longtime civil rights leader, said after being told of the decision. "It's fitting that he be honored as one of the founding fathers of the new America."
Immediately after King's death in 1968, officials of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., of which King was a member, proposed erecting a permanent memorial to him in Washington. Their efforts gathered strength in 1986, after his birthday became a national holiday and led to their creation of the memorial foundation.
Adrian L. Wallace, general president of Alpha Phi Alpha, said that the site near the Tidal Basin was at the top of their list of potential locations for the memorial because of its symbolic meaning and to place King among the most revered figures in American history. "The Tidal Basin is a logical site because it represents growth and power and strength and at the same time is positioned on a tranquil pond," Wallace said in a statement on the project's Web site. "It is a site which embodies all that Dr. King represents."
Specific features of the King monument have yet to be decided, pending an international competition for an architectural design. The King foundation has until Nov. 12, 2003, to complete a design, finish a fund-raising campaign and break ground on construction. The monument's design would have to be approved by the same three federal agencies that approved the location.
"Oh, that's the easy part," said Vic Carter, a spokesman for the foundation and a member of Alpha Phi Alpha. "It was a little more challenging than we expected to get federal approval [for the site]. But now that we have it, the Alphas are leading the fund-raising effort, and we can move full speed ahead."
Despite stop-and-go lobbying efforts with the White House, Congress and other federal officials, the monument's supporters have worked to overcome objections by Mall custodians who are wary of adding new monuments, arguing against cluttering the area's green space and spoiling the solemn atmosphere.
Last September, officials proposed a ban on new memorials on the Mall. That proposal is still being reviewed but, if it is enacted, it would exempt the King memorial, which has been granted congressional approval to be placed on the Mall. Other proposed memorials that have secured federal approval for placement on the Mall and also are exempted include the World War II Memorial, the Black Revolutionary War Patriots Memorial, the George Mason Memorial and the Air Force Memorial.
The commission's approval stipulates that the proposed monument avoid the basin's walkway and waters. They also placed a 20-foot limit on the height of the monument.
"I think that people are comfortable with the decision, and we were able to move forward," said commission Chairman Harvey Gantt, an architect and former mayor of Charlotte, N.C.
Gantt, who announced the decision during the commission's meeting Thursday, said that there was no opposition to erecting the memorial, only a lively discussion on where to locate it. Some commissioners wanted the memorial placed in an area near the planned World War II Memorial, but others rejected that idea because it conflicted with King's message of nonviolence, Gantt said.
Still others wanted it placed on or nearer the site of the Lincoln Memorial, where King made his "I Have a Dream" speech.
But in the end, Gantt said, the commissioners agreed that "King ought to have his own site."