WASHINGTON — Icons of the civil rights movement and those who benefited from their struggles came together Monday to dedicate the site of a memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the first on the National Mall to honor an African American.
"On this ground, a monument will rise that preserves his legacy for the ages," President Bush told the crowd of several thousand, largely African American, who witnessed the ceremonial groundbreaking for the memorial, which is expected to be completed in 2008.
The four-acre site, on the edge of the Tidal Basin, is between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, near the steps where King gave his stirring "I have a dream" speech in 1963.
The King memorial's "presence in this place ... 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," Bush said.
Among those braving the muddy ground, chilly winds and light rain were several of King's contemporaries in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, including Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Dorothy Irene Height, former president of the National Council of Negro Women.
"He spoke to the conscience of us all," Lewis said, "telling us that the way of peace, that the way of love, the way of nonviolence is a better way, a more excellent way."
Speakers, who included talk show host Oprah Winfrey, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), poet Maya Angelou and three of King's four children, urged those in attendance to work to complete the monument by stressing the importance of spreading King's message.
"It is because of Dr. King that I stand, that I have a voice to be heard," Winfrey said. "I do not take that for granted -- not for one breath."
King's college fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, got the project started in 1984, when some of its members sent the group's board of directors a proposal to build a national memorial honoring the slain civil rights leader. Ten years ago, President Clinton told the crowd Monday, "it was my great honor" to sign legislation approving its creation.
The entrance to the memorial, designed by ROMA Design Group of San Francisco, will feature a sculpture -- titled "The Mountain of Despair," after a line in the famed 1963 speech -- representing the racial divide that King worked to overcome. There are plans for waterfalls, reflecting the rhythm of his oratory, to cascade over stones engraved with excerpts of his speeches.
Organizers say they have about two-thirds of the $100 million needed to develop and maintain the site. Construction is not expected to begin until all the funds are raised.
Monday's ceremony was held exactly half a century after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision overturning an Alabama law that mandated segregation on buses in Montgomery. The transit boycott by black residents of that city, which started with the refusal of Rosa Parks to give up her seat at the front of a bus to a white man, marked the beginning of King's prominence in the civil rights movement. He was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968 at age 39.
"The memorial will bring a consciousness to people visiting D.C. to understand the strife that our country experienced during the '60s. The importance of this memorial is that it doesn't only represent African Americans, it represents all people," said Robert Kirkpatrick, a Teamsters organizer from Apple Valley, Calif., who attended the ceremony.
There have been complaints for years that the museums and monuments on the Mall, popularly known as "the nation's front yard," have not represented America's minorities.
The National Museum of the American Indian opened just west of the U.S. Capitol two years ago. An area near the Washington Monument has been reserved for a museum celebrating African American history and culture, but it is not expected to open until 2016.
In addition, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) is leading an effort to put a museum of Latino culture and history on the Mall.