Know those lists of famous people you wish you could have met? Martin Luther King Jr. is one of those.
We met Dr. King in Washington, D.C. this spring, and he was greater than ever. Larger than ever. Massive, in fact.
Of all the monuments to dead men in the nation’s capital, the new memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most powerful.
He towers over the Tidal Basin like a giant — like the giant he was.
You can’t help but be moved by this mammoth sculpture, and all it represents. It’s not just the 30-foot height or the tonnage of granite spread about; it’s the vision.
Visitors leave the noisy traffic of nearby Independence Ave. to find peace.
The memorial is built in a crescent, curving around the Tidal Basin with a design that uses landscaping for sound buffering.
The water of the basin and water-on-granite stifle sound here, and still the mind.
The effect is so strong, visitors are respectful, and speak in low tones and whispers. Even school groups stop chattering when they reach the memorial plaza.
Enter the huge boulder that was split for a portal here, and the noise of the city disappears.
You walk through the sliced-in-three boulder toward the third chunk, the one that seems to have been pushed forward to face the Tidal Basin. Siting of the memorial is historically significant — it was built on an axis between the Jefferson Memorial across the water, and the Lincoln Memorial towering nearby.
Dr. King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
The cleft boulder is the “Mountain of Despair.” The granite monolith that appears to have moved from the middle of that split boulder, bearing Dr. King’s likeness, is the “Stone of Hope.”
This is so heart-stopping that visitors look up, then look out. They follow King’s gaze to the tranquil water, and the hundreds of cherry trees fringing the basin.
It’s not lost on many visitors that these trees were donated to Washington by Japan, starting in 1912, as a symbol of unity and peace. More than 100 new cherry trees were planted at the King Memorial, then dozens of flowering myrtles so that there are gentle blossoms and soft colors here year-round.
This combination of peacefulness and purpose appeals to international visitors, families, people of all ages and backgrounds. During our visit, the memorial drew many with cameras, and a large group of American women and men in uniform.
Arms folded in a position of defiance and strength, this Martin Luther King Jr. appears determined and fearless. There’s a scroll clutched in his left hand, representing the hundreds of sermons and speeches he wrote and delivered in the name of civil rights, justice, and peace.
Behind him, a gently curving wall of granite holds this serenity in place.
There are 14 of Dr. King’s most famous quotations here, although that number must have been difficult to pare from the many quoted since his 1955 beginnings as a civil rights leader and Baptist minister.
This, from a 1959 speech in Washington: “Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”
Some of the quotations are long and make readers pause; others were controversial because they were abbreviated and their meaning changed.
The $120-million memorial, like many in the National Mall and Memorial Parks system, was controversial from the start.
It was criticized because the sculptor wasn’t American. (Lei Yixin, a master sculptor from China, was selected from thousands of bids from 52 countries.)
It was criticized because the stone was shipped from China (the Chinese government apparently offered a $25-million donation).
It was criticized because stonemasons traveled from China to assemble 150 blocks, while American masters were overlooked.
And it was criticized — only in America — because the material chosen was white granite.
Yet light plays on this stone at different hours in ways that make the sculpture even more dramatic.
What cannot be attacked are the four words that motivated Martin Luther King Jr. and on which this memorial for the ages is based: Hope. Justice. Democracy. Love.
As Lei Yixin said, Martin Luther King Jr. is an international hero.
When it opened last August, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial became the 395th national park in the U.S.
It’s fitting that more than 2 million visitors from around the world already have visited this young memorial, moved by a man who gave voice to the oppressed everywhere.
Like all memorial plazas and parks in Washington, D.C., this one is free.
Tomorrow, National Parks Week starts. Almost 400 national parks across the country are open without fees, every day through April 29.
Download Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have A Dream speech for free.