WASHINGTON — Thousands of people began descending on Washington, DC early on Sunday to dedicate a memorial for slain civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr, weeks after the original ceremony was canceled by a hurricane.
President Barack Obama is to lead the event, with tens of thousands expected at the National Mall to honor the man whose “I Have a Dream” speech helped galvanize a movement in the 1960s.
US civil rights leader Reverend Jesse Jackson, who was a friend and colleague of King’s, on Sunday called him a “living force” even today, decades after his death, with poverty and privation still rampant in the United States.
“I see him as a living force and the day when I think about more wars, more concentrations of wealth, more poverty and then more rebellion, Dr King would be in the middle of the struggle today,” Jackson told CNN television shortly before the start of the dedication.
“A great society — 44 million Americans are on food stamps. And 48 million in poverty. And 52 million Americans unsecure,” Jackson continued.
“Dr King would make a case for we must measure our character by the way we treat those on the hull of the ship, not just those on the deck of the ship.”
An estimated 50,000 people are expected to attend the dedication instead of the 300,000 hoped for in August.
Hurricane Irene’s passage through the eastern United States prompted the postponement of the ceremony on August 28, which was the 48th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington.
The King monument, the only one on the Washington Mall not dedicated to a US president or to war, has already opened to the public alongside those of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Obama, the first black US president, will deliver remarks to the crowd including celebrities such as singer Aretha Franklin and fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger, who helped raise funds for the monument. Music, speeches and poetry will also be featured at the event.
The Martin Luther King Memorial is “the first on the National Mall to celebrate a man of color, hope and peace,” said Harry Johnson, president of the foundation that undertook the project, now 15 years in the running.
Dedicated to the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and his message of democracy, hope, justice and love, the memorial has been installed on a vast open space of four acres (1.5 hectares) dotted with cherry trees donated by Japan.
Nearby is the Lincoln Memorial from where the pastor gave his most famous speech on August 28, 1963.
Located halfway between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, and near the Roosevelt Memorial, it has a “powerful” location that “creates a visual line of leadership,” Johnson said.
The space has the shape of an arch bordering the Tidal Basin reservoir between the Potomac River and the Washington Channel in Washington. Embellished by several fountains, it closes with a 450-foot (140-meter) Inscription Wall featuring King’s most notable words.
A massive, 28-foot (nearly nine-meter) “Stone of Hope” statue in the likeness of King, carved out of white granite, shows him gazing sternly out onto the horizon, arms folded.
“When you look at the facial expression, you can see the hope,” said Lei Yixin, the Chinese artist who carved it.
Visitors enter through the Mountain of Despair, a huge boulder symbolizing the African American struggle for peace and equality.
The $120 million memorial has not yet been completely financed, with $5 million still needing to be raised, a reminder of how the monument’s inauguration was delayed multiple times over economic or security concerns.
Since King’s time, most Americans say there has been progress toward his dream, but that a gulf still exists between blacks and whites.
A recent USA Today poll found 90 percent of whites and 85 percent of blacks believe civil rights for blacks have improved in their lifetime, although whites are more likely to see the progress as far-reaching.
The poll showed 54 percent of blacks and 49 percent of whites said the dream of racial equality had been achieved.
“We are not still fully integrated in this country, there is no question about that,” said Hilary Shelton of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
“At the time Dr. King became involved, states could treat African-Americans differently than white Americans and everyone else. Because of his hard work, dedication, and his ultimate sacrifice, that country moved in a much better direction. A lot has been done and so much work has still to be done.”