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Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Opens On National Mall

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The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the Washington, D.C. mall opened to the public today, but the building and execution of this $120 million dollar monument has not been without its critics.

The King Memorial is the first monument on the National Mall to honor an African-American, as well as the first one dedicated to a person who did not serve as president.

It took 25 years to make the memorial a reality. The first idea for the monument was presented by a chapter of King’s fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha in 1984.

In 1996, President Clinton signed congressional authorization for the memorial. The memorial is estimated to have cost around $120 million to build and was financed in part by Ford, Boeing, Coca-Cola, Exxon Mobil as well as private donors.

Tidal Basin Cherry Trees - Washington Monument in distance

Tidal Basin Cherry Trees with the Washington Monument in distance - photo via U.S. Department of Agriculture - USDA photo by Scott Bauer

Built on four acres near the Tidal Basin, where the National Mall’s famous cherry blossoms bloom each year, the memorial’s address, 1964 Independence Avenue, is a symbolic reference to the year the Civil Rights Act was passed.

Situated across from the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and next to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, the placement of this latest structure, according to planners, aims to create a visual “line of leadership” that stretches from the Lincoln Memorial to the Jefferson Memorial.

The sculpture is named Stone of Hope, after a line in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. King said “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”

Three stones comprise the memorial’s design. Two outside stones represent “Mountains of Despair” and flank the center stone, the “Stone of Hope” with King carved out of the front. King is depicted with arms folded and holding a scroll.

King’s statue is 30 feet tall, over a third taller than the Lincoln and Jefferson representations, which both stand around 19 feet. The sculpture was built out of 159 blocks of Chinese granite. Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin carved the statue, which was then shipped to the U.S. and assembled at the end of 2010.

There have been years of congressional debate regarding overbuilding on the National Mall. King’s memorial is technically only the ninth memorial on the 220-year-old mall, but half of the mall’s structures have been built in the last 16 years.

1963 March on Washington at which Martin Luther King, Jr. famously spoke

1963 March on Washington at which Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" Speech - photo via National Archives

Some critics argue that there has been “memorial fever” and monuments have been built and located without proper planning and logic.

Congress currently has a self-imposed moratorium on new construction, so this may one of the last structures to be built for some time.

Beyond fears of overcrowding on the Mall, the memorial’s design is not without its critics.

The memorial’s design was first criticized in 2008 as appearing confrontational, and reminiscent of a totalitarian leader.

Critics have also quibbled with the blush color stone, which appears to resemble pale or freckled caucasian skin.

Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy had one of the most creative critiques of the hyper-realistic style.

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DCMilloy wrote: “My first impression of the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial sculpture was of Han Solo frozen in carbonite from the movie Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.”

Despite the criticism, the monument’s unveiling is driving major tourism business to Washington, D.C.

This morning, prior to opening, approximately 100 people lined up early for the first public viewing, but over 400,000 people are expected for five days of celebrations.

On Sunday, the 48th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech, President Obama will end the festivities with the monument’s official dedication.

By Lily J. Kosner for PeterGreenberg.com.

Related Links: Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Daily Beast, Washington Post, The Atlantic, National Public Radio

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