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A memorial fit for a King

THE NATION

The civil rights leader's monument is dedicated on the National Mall

October 17, 2011|Alexa Vaughn
  • About 30,000 people turned out for the official dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial on the National Mall in Washington.
About 30,000 people turned out for the official dedication of the Martin… (Oliver Douliery, Abaca…)

WASHINGTON — The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wasn't a big guy -- but he cast a long shadow.

The nation's first black president, along with King's children and friends, dedicated the civil rights leader's granite memorial Sunday on the National Mall. They spoke of King's vision, his courage and his fight for racial and economic justice.

And one of those friends, colleague Andrew Young, also spoke of King's stature.

"He was only about 5 feet 7," Young said. "He was always upset about all the tall people looking down on him. Well, now he's 30 feet tall!"

Laughter erupted from the crowd of at least 30,000 at sunny West Potomac Park. Organizers had expected 250,000 people on the original dedication date, Aug. 28, the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington and King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Hurricane Irene forced the postponement.

But the rescheduled event had a purpose, said two of King's children, Bernice King and Martin Luther King III. Both voiced support for the Occupy Wall Street protests across the country.

"We are being pulled from the familiar place of the 'I Have a Dream' speech, beyond the dream of racial justice to that of economic justice," said Bernice King, who reminded the crowd that her father fought not only for racial equality but for the rights of the poor. "He would want us to move beyond the dream and into action."

Her brother implored the crowd to care more about what King stood for than the man himself.

"Sometimes we get caught up in the brand of my father but not the ideas of my father," Martin Luther King III said.

President Obama, who came with his wife and daughters, also cited King's economic message. "If he were alive today, I believe he would remind us that the unemployed worker can rightly challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing all who work there," he said.

Obama, who campaigned in 2008 on the slogan "Change we can believe in," used the civil rights struggle to remind the audience that change is hard.

"Let us remember that change has never been quick," he said. "Change has never been simple or without controversy. Change depends on persistence. Change requires determination."

Before the ceremony, Obama and his family toured the memorial with the King family. Daughters Sasha and Malia each dropped a scroll inside a time capsule to be buried at the site. A White House aide confirmed to the Associated Press that they were signed copies of the president's inaugural speech and his address to the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

Some members of the crowd said it was appropriate that Obama be the one to dedicate King's memorial.

"There were two firsts today," said Tony Dunlap, 53, of Cincinnati. "The first black president and the first black leader on the National Mall."

Obama, who was 6 when King was assassinated in 1968, recalled that the civil rights leader was not always seen as a unifying figure.

"King's faith was hard-won," Obama said. "Progress did not come from words alone. Progress was bought with days in jail and nights of bomb threats. But because of his vision, his moral imagination, barriers began to fall, bigotry began to fade and doors to opportunity swung open for an entire generation."

The memorial's design, by Chinese artist Lei Yixin, was inspired by a line from the 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech: "Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope."

When Obama finished, King's speech played on large video screens, less than half a mile from the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered it.

This time the crowd could speak the last part with him: "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we're free at last!"

After the ceremony, thousands flocked to what has been King's unofficial memorial -- the marble steps at the Lincoln Memorial from which he spoke.

Jaylen Couser, 15, of Muskegon, Mich., stood there overwhelmed by what he called a feeling of power. "He was definitely just a human being, but what he did was larger than life," Couser said.

Obama offered a similar sentiment. "To see [King] as larger than life would be a disservice," he said. "It was precisely because he was a man of flesh and blood that we respect him so."

alexa.vaughn@latimes.com

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