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Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, D.C.

The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, Washington, D.C.’s, newest monument, opened to the public in late August, despite having its official debut delayed until fall due to Hurricane Irene’s pounding rains.

The memorial’s four acre site on the Tidal Basin places the homage to Dr. King within a symbolic line, one that references the Lincoln Memorial to the northwest and the Jefferson Memorial to the southeast. Unlike those leaders, Dr. King did not serve as president. The King Memorial, in fact, is both the first on the National Mall to honor a non-president and the first devoted to an African American.

Like most everything in Washington, the King Memorial comes with an interesting story, years-long planning and some controversy. In 1984 five members of the Alpha Phi Alpha college fraternity came up with the idea of constructing a monument to Dr. King, a fellow fraternity member.

The memorial was finally ready for dedication on August 28, the 48th anniversary of Dr. King’s powerful “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered in 1963 from the steps of the city’s nearby Lincoln Memorial.

The designers rendered literal Dr. King’s “dream speech” metaphor of being able “to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” From the main entrance, visitors walk between two slab-like hills, the Mountain of Despair, and enter a plaza to face the 30-foot high Stone of Hope from which Dr. King emerges with his hands crossed and his expression concerned and thoughtful.

A 450-foot long wall showcases memorable lines from Dr. King’s speeches. It’s the quote on the actual monument that has poet Maya Angelou, among others, angry. Shortened to fit the space on the statue’s side, the quote reads “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

In the speech scholars insist that Dr. King decries the “drum major instinct” as one that can lead to self-promotion, the need to feel special and, possibly, to bigotry. The misleading quote, Angelou says makes Dr. King appear as “an arrogant twit.”

In his speech delivered February 4, 1968, Dr. King stated “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

It will be interesting to see whether the quote will be changed. Throughout the volatile 1950’s and 1960’s Dr. King, until his death, as well as fellow civil rights workers, spoke out about and marched for desegregation and equal rights for black Americans. They did this despite death threats, physical abuse and frequent incarcerations. After delivering a powerful speech in Memphis on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was killed by an assassin.

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