Video: Thousands flock to MLK memorial staff and news service reports
updated 8/22/2011 6:34:04 PM ET 2011-08-22T22:34:04

Martin Luther King Jr. stood 30 feet tall on the National Mall as a memorial to him was unveiled on Monday morning — the first memorial on the Mall not dedicated to a war, president or white man.

Fifteen years after a Congressional Joint Resolution in 1996 to establish a memorial in Washington, D.C. to honor King, the four-acre site on the Tidal Basin between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials opened to the public for the first time.

"From a geometrical standpoint it's on a direct line between the Lincoln Memorial and Jefferson Memorial," said Bill Line, spokesman for the National Park Service. "The brains and essence of our country (Thomas Jefferson), and Abe Lincoln, the greater uniter."

Visitors will walk through two massive white granite halves of the "Mountain of Despair" to reach the "Stone of Hope," from which the sculpture of King emerges.

The winning design from an international contest was inspired by the line from King's "I Have a Dream" speech, "Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope."

The towering statue has drawn critics who object that it was sculpted by Chinese artist Lei Yixin.

"Dr. King would be turning over in his grave if he knew" the sculptor was from a communist country, Denver-based artist Ed Dwight, who was on an early planning team for the memorial, told USA Today.

Slideshow: Martin Luther King Jr. (on this page)

"He would rise up from his grave and walk into their offices and go, 'How dare you?'" Dwight said.

Dr. King's expression and demeanor has also been debated, with some people arguing that his face looks Asian and that he looks confrontational with his arms folded.

But the civil rights leader's children, Martin Luther King III and Bernice King, disagree. Executive architect Ed Jackson showed them Lei's model of the head, as well as three others he had created. They chose the first one.

Image: The Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial
Charles Dharapak  /  AP
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial opened Monday, Aug. 22, 2011 in Washington, D.C.

"I informed them that this was the one that had generated all that controversy about their father looking confrontational," Jackson told USA Today. "Martin said, 'Well if my father was not confrontational, given what he was facing at the time, what else could he be?'"

The expression of King's sculpture was created from a collage of images that covered all four walls of Yixin's studio. King's mouth is a grim line, his brow is furrowed and his gaze intense as he looks off into the distance.

King's namesake son told the newspaper that he'd seen countless statues of his father and few of them were good reflections. "This particular artist — he's done a good job," he said.

Would King be pleased with US?
One visitor to the new memorial said she believes King would be pleased if he could see how far the United States has come since the 1960s.

"He would be ecstatic because President Obama is in the White House and that is a huge step," said Nydria Humphries, who hung on the fence outside before the memorial opened to the the public. She wore a T-shirt with an eagle and the stripes of the American flag.

"That's all MLK stood for," said Humphries, who is currently looking for work. "If we can just learn to live together, then we all can have a better life."

PhotoBlog: MLK Memorial unveiled in Washington D.C.

Behind King's sculpture, on either side of the mountain, is a 450-foot-long wall inscribed with 14 quotations from the famous orator's speeches, sermons, and writings.

Video: Martin Luther King Jr. memorial opens in D.C.

A panel of scholars chose the engraved quotations from speeches by King in Atlanta, New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Montgomery, Ala., as well as from King's books and his letter from a Birmingham, Ala., jail.

One of the stone engravings reads: "We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Stone of hope
King faces Jefferson wearing clothes that fade into the granite above his feet. His arms are folded, with one hand holding his rolled-up Dream speech, according to Yixin.

"Dr. King's vision is still living, in our minds; we still miss him, we still need him," said Yixin through a translator, calling the sculpture the most important of his life, technically and emotionally. "I am trying to present Dr. King as ready to step out ... this is King's spirit, to judge people from their character, not race, color or background."

theGrio: History in the making at MLK memorial

Yixin and a team carved and assembled the stone and mountain from 159 blocks of Atlantic Green granite and Kenoran Sage granite from North America, as well as granite from Asia.

The memorial will be presented to President Barack Obama and dedicated in a celebration on Sunday August 28, marking the anniversary of the Dream speech delivered from the steps of the nearby Lincoln Memorial 48 years ago.

King, the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize and the leader of the American Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, led a peaceful march on Washington in 1963. A crowd of 250,000 heard his DREAM speech at the march, five years before his assassination in Memphis in 1968.

A joint venture team broke ground on the site nearly five years ago, and the "Build the Dream" Campaign of the National Memorial Project Foundation, headed by President and CEO Harry Johnson, has raised $112 of the $120 million needed.

The team consists of ROMA Design Group, the winner of the competition to design the memorial; architectural and engineering firm McKissack & McKissack; Turner Construction Company; Tompkins Builders, Inc. and the Gilford Corporation.

"Dr. King championed a movement that draws from the deep well of America's potential for opportunity," said Johnson, a lawyer and former president of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. Kingbelonged to the fraternity.

The chief executive of architecture firm McKissack & McKissack, Deryl McKissack, said that her great-great grandfather was a slave who learned the building trade from his overseer.

"Dr. King changed people's minds, and now an African American woman can own a company and be a part of these projects -- I just feel great everyday when I wake up."

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report from

Photos: Martin Luther King Jr.

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  1. Baptist minister and civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images file) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. King sits at the White House with President Johnson in the background March 18, 1966. (National Archives / Getty Images file) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. King speaks to thousands who had made the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom to Washington, D.C., by the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall on May 17, 1957. The crowd was estimated at 25,000, making the pilgrimage the largest civil rights demonstration to date. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images file) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Coretta Scott king welcomes her husband with a kiss as he leaves the Montgomery County Courthouse in Montgomery, Ala., on March 22, 1956, after he was convicted on charges relating to the Montgomery bus boycott. (Gene Herrick / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. King listens to a radio while leading the Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights in Alabama in March 1965. To his left is fellow clergyman and civil rights campaigner the Rev. Ralph Abernathy. Abernathy and King were two of the co-founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Abernathy became president of the SCLC in 1968 after King's death and served in the post until 1990. (William Lovelace / Getty Images file) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A billboard purporting to show King at a communist training school stands beside the route of the Selma-to-Montgomery march on March 25, 1965, the day the marchers reached the state capital. (William Lovelace / Getty Images file) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. King, third from left, walks with supporters during the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. Later that day, at the end of the march, King delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. (AFP - Getty Images file) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. King delivers one of the most powerful and memorable addresses in American oratory, his "I Have a Dream" speech, Aug. 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. King waves from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, as the throng assembled for the March on Washington stretches into the distance toward the Washington Monument. (AFP - Getty Images file) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. King, center, walks with famed pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock, second from left; Father Frederick Reed, third from right; and union leader Cleveland Robinson, second from right, on March 16, 1967, during an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in New York City. (AFP - Getty Images file) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Outside the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968, U.S. Marshal Cato Ellis, left, serves King and his aides with a temporary restraining order barring them from leading another march in Memphis without court approval. The order was aimed at stopping a national March on Memphis set for April 8 in support of city sanitation workers. Also present are top King aides, from left, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, James Orange and Bernard Lee. "We are not going to be stopped by Mace or injunctions," King said. (Barney Sellers / Memphis Commercial Appeal) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson Jr., King and Abernathy stand on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 3, 1968, after they had returned to the Lorraine to plan strategy for the next sanitation workers march. The next day, King would be shot dead on this balcony. (AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Mourners wait for King's funeral cortege to pass outside Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga., on April 9, 1968. (Getty Images file) Back to slideshow navigation
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