A memorial to a “King” was formally dedicated in a Washington DC park on Sunday.
The Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr was one of America’s most significant 20th century leaders, whose influence has spread throughout the world.
Now he’s been immortalised in granite on the US National Mall, which is known locally as America’s front lawn.
It’s the first site in this part of DC to honour an African American and the only one not dedicated to a former president or a war.
The giant centre-piece is called “The Stone of Hope” and the expression on Dr King’s face is meant to inspire a multitude of private interpretations.
Mired in controversy
The Chinese artist who carved the $120 million statue at the heart of the memorial Lei Yixin, said that the monument told a story of its own.
“You can see through the facial expression, his eyebrow is kind of frowning, he wants to show that he’s thinking. Dr. King is just ready to step out!”
The project has been nearly thirty years in the making and not without controversy.
For starters the choice of Yixin, rather than an African American artist, especially at a time when so many Americans are out of work, was thought by some to be insensitive.
Those behind the decision, however, like executive architect Ed Jackson stand by it.
“He was an extraordinary artist, sculptor. And out of all the other sculptors that we had an opportunity to talk to and visit and see their work I had not encountered anyone else who matched his skill set.”
In China, Yixin is best known for his sculpture of Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic. The statue was erected by unpaid labour, which has added to the criticism of commissioning Yixin to sculpt the image of Dr King.
A sense of history
It’s just over forty eight years since the March on Washington during which Martin Luther King made his iconic and ultimately world changing “I have a dream speech.”
GK Butterfield – now a Democratic congressman from North Carolina – but then a sixteen year old boy – was there with his father.
All these years later he says one thing stood out to his young eyes.
“The most significant thing that appeared to me was there were thousands of white Americans. I’d never seen white people support African Americans in the civil rights movement and so that was a wonderful sight for me to see.”
In his speech on Sunday, Barack Obama, the American president, hailed King’s contribution to American life, but also noted Dr King’s work is far from over amid the economic crisis that’s left millions of people out of work, and poverty on the rise, especially in minority communities.
“In too many troubled neighbourhoods across the country, the conditions of our poorest citizens appear little changed from what existed 50 years ago – neighbourhoods with underfunded schools and broken-down slums, inadequate health care, constant violence.”
Obama’s address was largely devoid of politics though parallels between King’s March on Washington, nearly fifty years ago, and today’s anti-Wall Street protests were lost on no one.
Ben Jealous, President NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) said.
“To get to a day beyond racism and segregation, to get to a place beyond poverty and great divide in our economy … those fights are very much alive, his spirit is with us right now.”
Throughout the event, the crowd was entertained by a mix of top performers.
Headlining it all – the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin – whose father was on the march to Washington in 1963 and who knew Martin Luther King well.
But the big surprise was Stevie Wonder – he sang his eighties hit Happy Birthday – which he wrote in honour of King’s birthday becoming a national holiday.
This event may have been a few weeks later than intended – postponed from August 28th by a passing hurricane – but the sun shone, thousands of people turned out and rediscovered the spirit of Dr Martin Luther King.
It is unsurprising, given his 1967 call for a “Revolution of Values” in America has already found an echo with the anti-Wall Street protests now sweeping America and the world.