WASHINGTON â€”President Barack Obama and civil rights leaders on Sunday helped dedicate a memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with thousands of spectators watching, almost two months after it was originally scheduled to be dedicated.
Obama, the nationâ€™s first black president, who benefited enormously from the victories won by the civil rights movement, called King a man who â€œsomehow gave voice to our deepest dreams and our most lasting ideals, a man who stirred our conscience and thereby helped make our union more perfect.â€
The centerpiece of the national memorial, the first on the National Mall honoring a non-president and an African-American, is a 30-foot-high, 12-foot-wide granite sculpture of King with his arms crossed. Nearby, a white granite wall displays 14 quotations from Kingâ€™s speeches and writings.
Facing the Tidal Basin, the King memorial, which cost $120 million and opened Aug. 22, stands between the Lincoln Memorial and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial on the National Mall.
â€œItâ€™s a good feeling just to look at him, a black man that made it to this level, to have him statueized,â€ said Johnita Cox, 70, a retired nursing assistant from Jackson, Ala. She took the train up to Washington and visited the memorial with a friend.
She recalled that when she and other black friends walked on the sidewalk to school, they had to step aside when white people came close. She said bricks would sometimes be thrown through the windows of her house.
â€œNever in my wildest dreams did I think this man, Martin Luther King, would be memorialized right there. I wouldnâ€™t have missed this for anything,â€ Cox said.
The message of Obamaâ€™s dedication speech, which began with some in the audience chanting â€œfour more yearsâ€ and touched on themes of fighting to overcome the hardships faced by King, seemed to echo some of the challenges faced by the president himself. Those challenges include repairing a weak economy beset by high unemployment,t and fighting against a sense that some Americans have that the nation is in decline.
â€œAs tough as times may be, I know we will overcome. I know there are better days ahead. I know this because of the man towering over us,â€ he said at the end of his speech.
â€œLet us keep striving; let us keep struggling; let us keep climbing toward that promised land of a nation and a world that is more fair, and more just and more equal for every single child of God.â€
The ceremony, attended by a mostly African-American crowd, many wearing white hats bearing the slogan â€œCelebrate the Life, Dream, Legacy,â€ was a mix of speeches from people who knew King and musical interludes from artists such as Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and James Taylor.
The memorial had been scheduled to be dedicated on Aug. 28, the 48th anniversary of Kingâ€™s â€œI Have a Dream Speech,â€ but Hurricane Irene forced a postponement.
One of those attending was Ernie Thomas, 71, a retired 20-year Air Force officer and state government employee, who flew to Washington from Moreno Valley, Calif.