National Mall and Memorial Parks | MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. MEMORIAL

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was the last of the major memorials erected on or near the National Mall in Washington, D. C., having been officially dedicated on March 28, 2011, the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at which King gave his famous I Have a Dream speech. (The actual dedication ceremony took place on October 16th, the delay due to Hurricane Irene.) The memorial is located just south of the Mall on the northwest side of the Tidal Basin and is on a direct line between the Lincoln Memorial, where King gave his speech, and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, a man whose Declaration of Independence touted that “all men are created equal.”

The Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the organization King joined while at Boston College, originated the idea for the memorial in 1968, though it wasn’t until 1996 that Congress authorized its creation. Nearly all money was raised from private donations, with the Federal government pitching in roughly $10 million of the project’s $120 million construction cost. The King family didn’t help much by demanding to be paid a licensing fee to use King’s image. They ultimately negotiating an $800,000 deal.

A design competition was announced by the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation. The winner, ROMA Design Group, was chosen in 2000. The design called for a massive statue of King to be sculpted from a slice of a symbolic mountain known as the Stone of Hope. Behind the statue is the actual mountain, the Mountain of Despair, with its middle section missing—the slice on which King is sculpted, thus creating an “emerging from a mountain” motif. The idea stems from a line in the I Have a Dream speech: “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” The design is reminiscent of the sculptures on Mount Rushmore, though King is depicted from the knees up. Quotes from King are etched into a granite wall that forms a semicircle around the memorial.

The sculpture was done by Chinese Master sculptor Lei Yixin, who had been recommended by a group of international artists working in St. Paul, Minnesota. Of course this drew controversy, especially since the Chinese government reportedly threw in $25 million for the project. Black artists cried foul, demanding that a black artist do the sculpture, but since the Memorial Foundation was made mainly of black board members, it was hard for them to complain.

Stone of Hope and the Mountain of Despair

Stone of Hope and the Mountain of Despair

The statue is comprised of 159 pink granite blocks. Yixin carved 80 percent of the sculpture in China, then had the granite shipped to the United States and assembled at the memorial site where he finished the work.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

Carved from polished granite is a wall with fourteen quotes from King. The quotes were engraved by Nick Benson, a Rhode Island stone carver who specialized in lettering monuments. He also worked on the World War II Memorial.

Wall of Quotes

Wall of Quotes

Controversy did not end with the completion and dedication of the memorial. A ten-word quote engraved on the left side of the Stone of Hope had been highly paraphrased from one that was four sentences long. This was done due to limited space, but nevertheless, the move brought criticism that the meaning had been lost. Writer Maya Angelou stated that it made “Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit…” In 2012, the U. S. Secretary of Interior ordered that the quote be removed. The words were chiseled out of the stone to match existing striations (scars cut into rock, usually by glaciers). Striations were carved into the other side as well, all at a cost of close to $1 million.

Side where the paraphrased quote was removed

Side where the paraphrased quote was removed

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is open year-round, 24 hours a day. Park Rangers are on hand from 9:30 AM to 10 PM to answer questions (except for Christmas day). The National Park Service offers daily programs that rotate throughout the memorials on the Mall. To find out what sort of activities are going on when you visit, see the National Park Service’s Calendar web page for the National Mall and Memorial Parks.

Back to the Top


Last updated on April 27, 2020
Share this article