The MLK Memorial’s Complicated History

After 15 painstaking years and some heated controversies, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington makes its debut.

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The National Mall, a wide expanse in the heart of the nation’s capital, is home to numerous monuments honoring U.S. presidents and military sacrifice. This week, the setting’s latest commemorative work opens to the public: the long-awaited Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial.

Bordering Washington, D.C.’s Tidal Basin between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, a 30-foot granite sculpture of the prominent civil rights activist looms. It’s flanked by a crescent-shaped wall inscribed with 14 excerpts from some of King’s most notable sermons and speeches. Further enhancing the site are 182 cherry blossom trees, which will reach full bloom each April, the month of King’s death. And the memorial’s street address, 1964 Independence Avenue, references the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a milestone of the civil rights movement.

“This is going to be a first in two different ways — it’s the first memorial on the National Mall to honor a man of peace, and a man of color,” Harry Johnson Sr., president and CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, told The Root. “Now the Mall as we know it, the great land on which we honor our heroes, will be diversified much like this country.”

Creating a permanent tribute to the globally revered icon, one that captures his vision of freedom, opportunity and justice for all Americans, was a tall order, to say the least. Despite critics who have assailed its decisions along the way — from the artist of the sculpture to the design and the granite used — the team behind the project feels certain that it got it right.

“Next to Obama’s inauguration, a few funerals and weddings, this is perhaps the largest event to happen in the past 50 years to people of color in this country,” said Johnson. “I’m excited to know that children, people who knew Dr. King and others will go past it, and they will get the same feeling that everyone gets when they see it for the first time — a shock and awe.”

The Making of a Monument

The vision to build a national memorial for Martin Luther King Jr. was initially conceived in 1984 by Alpha Phi Alpha, the African-American fraternity of which King was a member. Congress authorized the memorial in 1996, and two years later the Alphas set up a foundation to manage fundraising — to the tune of $120 million — and design.

“We didn’t want it to just be a monument or a statue, but a living memorial,” said Johnson. “It was important that it tell a story, so that people could walk through and read the words of Dr. King and have those words still have relevance today.”