Martin Luther King Jr.’s Memorial: History, Facts & FAQs

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Notable graves and memorials don’t merely serve as reminders that an important person is no longer with us. They can often embody the spirit and values a person lived for as well.

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Consider the example of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Dr. King had a profound impact on countless lives during his time. We continue to feel that impact to this day. While it’s still important to learn about his work through books, lessons, and other resources, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial also stands as a visual symbol of the changes he strived for.

The memorial itself also has its own interesting history. Keep reading if you’d like to learn more about the topic. This guide will tell you where it is, how it came to be, what it symbolizes, and what basic information you should know about it.

Where is the Martin Luther King Jr.’s Memorial? 

The address of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is 1964 Independence Avenue, S.W., in Washington, D.C.’s West Potomac Park.

This address isn’t a random choice, as 1964 was the year the Civil Rights Act became law. Such attention to detail defined the project, as the following information about its history will demonstrate.

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History of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial?

Martin Luther King, Jr. is undeniably one of the most significant figures in American history. Despite this, it took a relatively long time to establish his official memorial when you consider how long ago people began proposing one.

Origins

The idea for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial has its roots in the mid-1980s. It was around this time that a few members of Alpha Phi Alpha, the African American intercollegiate fraternity to which Dr. King belonged, met with the fraternity’s board of directors to argue they should strive to dedicate a memorial to their hero.

However, transforming their vision into a reality took longer than you may have expected. Years of campaigning for the memorial didn’t lead to fast responses. It was only in 1996 that both the Senate and the House of Representatives finally authorized the project.

That’s not to say construction began immediately. President Bill Clinton still had to sign the official resolution, which he did in 1998. This allowed the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Foundation to begin the process.

Preparations

The next step started in 1999 when the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Foundation began reviewing proposals for the memorial’s design. Designers and architects from greater than 50 countries submitted more than 900 ideas.

All had to first submit three ideas on display boards. Jurors evaluating the submissions ranged from historians to artists. It was important to choose a design that blended artistic value with a clear representation of Dr. King’s legacy.

The jury did not know the identities of those who submitted ideas. This helped them evaluate each design solely on its individual merits.

They eventually whittled their options down to 23 submissions. Because they struggled to reach a final decision, they requested that the 23 remaining applicants submit a fourth board for review.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Foundation eventually selected a design from San Francisco’s ROMA Design Group in 2000. They chose Chinese artist Master Lei Yixin to serve as the Sculptor of Record, responsible for sculpting the image of Dr. King. In 2007 they hired the firm of Turner Construction, Tompkins Builders, and Gilford Corporation to construct the other elements of the memorial.

The group encountered one more roadblock before construction could begin. In May of 2008, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts complained the initial design was “too confrontational.” In response, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Foundation submitted an adjusted design that received full approval a month later.

Construction

Construction teams began preparing the site in August of 2008. In October of 2009, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed the permit necessary for construction to officially begin.

The 159 granite sculpture blocks used to create the memorial didn’t arrive back from China until August 2010, as Lei preferred to sculpt them in his own studio. Active construction eventually began in November of 2010. The official dedication occurred on August 28th, 2011. This marked the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. However, due to concerns about Hurricane Irene, the dedication ceremony took place on October 16th, 2011.

The ceremony attracted tens of thousands of attendees. They gathered at Washington, D.C.’s National Mall to offer thoughts and prayers, celebrate the life of one of the most important Americans to ever live, and listen to President Barack Obama deliver a speech in which he referred to Dr. King as the “black preacher with no official rank or title who somehow gave voice to our deepest dreams and our most lasting ideals.”

What it represents

The sculpture of Dr. King serves to represent his vision for the future. He stands proud and tall, looking out to the horizon for a better tomorrow.

The sculpture also stands ahead of two granite stones that have particular symbolic meaning, much like the Rest In Power symbols or messages some graves feature. One of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most well-known quotes is “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”

The stones represent this quote visually. One is the Mountain of the Despair, but the other is the Stone of Hope. The fact that it’s separate from the Mountain of Despair represents the possibility of liberation from the struggles of the past.

Construction and design

Constructing the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was a rigorous process. Lei understood that he had an enormous responsibility, as he was helping the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Foundation leave a legacy through a symbol that would embody Dr. King’s spirit.

Thus, he began his design work by filling his studio with literally hundreds of photos of Dr. King. Lei’s goal wasn’t merely to create a sculpture that accurately represented the man’s physical attributes. He also wanted to be certain the finished product captured his soul.

Lei created a three-foot scale model once he was satisfied with his overall idea for the sculpture. The construction team would eventually help turn this model into the final 30-foot version. During this process, Lei also coordinated with Dr. King’s family and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Foundation to select the appropriate materials for the sculpture. They decided shrimp pink granite had the right qualities to ensure Dr. King’s likeness would shine through.

The construction teams also ensured full accuracy by building a 30-foot fiberglass replica of the concept. This served as a reference point during the construction process. 

Lei completed most of the sculpting in his Chinese studio before shipping the granite blocks back to the United States for final construction. Nick Benson and his company The John Stevens Shop made the engravings.

Minor controversy

The current Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial doesn’t exist in the exact same form it took when first dedicated. Specifically, the Stone of Hope included a paraphrased quote that read “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

Some people, including such important figures as Maya Angelou, took issue with this. Many believed that out of context it made Dr. King sound arrogant. The full quote is “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.” Dr. King was delivering a speech about the negative qualities of elevating one’s personal ego. In its paraphrased form, the quote seemed to express the opposite.

The Foundation understood these concerns. Thus, in 2013, Yei removed the quote from the stone.

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial: FAQs

Hopefully, this guide helped you more thoroughly appreciate the work that went into creating the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. However, if you’re merely looking for some basic answers to a few of your questions, refer to this FAQ:

Who built the MLK Jr. Memorial?

Master Lei Yixin sculpted the likeness of Dr. King. Turner Construction, Tompkins Builders, and Gilford Corporation handled the practical construction.

How tall is the memorial? 

At its highest point, the memorial reaches 30 feet.

What’s the MLK Jr. Memorial made out of?

Shrimp pink granite.

Why is it unfinished?

Some feel the memorial looks unfinished because the legs of Dr. King’s sculpture blend right in with the granite beneath them.

However, others point out this symbolizes the fact that Dr. King’s life went unfinished, and that the work of securing fair treatment for African Americans isn’t over yet.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial: Honoring a Hero

Dr. King may no longer be alive, but his spirit lives on in many forms. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is simply one of them.


Sources

  1. “Building the Memorial.” Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, National Parks Service U.S. Department of the Interior, www.nps.gov/mlkm/learn/building-the-memorial.htm
  2. Dellinger, Hampton. “Righting Two Martin Luther King Memorial Wrongs.” The Atlantic, The Atlantic Monthly Group, 21 January 2013, www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/01/righting-two-martin-luther-king-memorial-wrongs/266944/
  3. Gambino, Megan. “Building the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, 18 August 2011, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/building-the-martin-luther-king-jr-national-memorial-54721785/
  4. “Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Milestones.” Washington Post, The Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/lifestyle/martin-luther-king-jr-memorial-timeline/

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