In the moments leading up to the official opening of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Monday morning, a small group of people, some wearing T-shirts bearing the civil rights leader’s image, lined up along the Tidal Basin to observe it from a slight distance. One woman sang a hymn.
The memorial, which took more than 25 years from inception to completion, depicts King standing with his arms folded, holding a scroll as he looks across the river. “It was built from 159 blocks of granite that were carved by master scupltor Lei Yixin. The blocks, which weighed more than 170 tons, were assembled on site at the National Mall in late 2010.
“I like the fact that the monument looks tan(ish) and the features you can tell are very much of African descent,” Bernice King, King’s second and youngest daughter told BET.com. “That’s so important because when you study the history of America and many of the atrocities and misfortunes and the oppressions that have come and suffered, to be able to witness this as a young person is going to be, I think, very transformative, inspiring and empowering.”
King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was the inspiration for the sculpture, and is designed so that visitors walk through a “mountain of despair” to the statue of King, called the “stone of hope.”
“I am very honored to have the opportunity to do this complete job. Martin Luther King is not only a hero of Americans, he’s also a hero of the world and his dream is universal. It is a dream of equality,” Lei said through an interpreter. "He went to jail. He had been beaten, and he sacrificed his life for his dream. And now his dream comes true.”
The memorial is the first on the Mall to honor an African-American and is situated between the Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln memorials. It also includes a 450-foot-long granite wall inscribed with 14 quotations from King’s speeches, books and letters from a Birmingham jail that were chosen by a panel of scholars.
One of the stone engravings reads: "We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
Harry Johnson, president and CEO of the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation, said that it not only diversifies the Mall but also represents the ideals that King stood for: democracy, hope, justice and love. He hopes that it will be a place of serenity where visitors can think about what King means today and for the future.
The monument will be open Monday until 10 p.m., and Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday it will be open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., but will close Friday and Saturday in preparation for its official dedication on the 48th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at 11 a.m. Sunday.
—Danielle Wright contributed to this article.
(Photo: EPA/JIM LO SCALZO/LANDOV)