Memorial for Civil Rights Leader Opens on National Mall

August 24, 2011

Professor Adele Alexander talks about the significance of the new Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial.

On Aug. 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of 250,000 people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Almost a half century after his famous remarks, the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s contributions to civil rights have been commemorated on the National Mall with the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, which opened to the public Aug. 22.

Located on the Tidal Basin, the $120-million memorial features a 30-foot likeness of Dr. King titled “Stone of Hope” and a 450-foot crescent-shaped granite wall inscribed with excerpts of his sermons and public remarks. It is the first memorial on the National Mall to honor an African American or someone who did not serve as U.S. president.

President Barack Obama and members of the King family, as well as civil rights leaders and other distinguished guests, will formally dedicate the memorial on Aug. 28. Click here to read a statement from GW Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Terri Harris Reed.

Adele Alexander, GW research professor of history, American studies and Africana studies, spoke with GW Today about the significance of the memorial. She was one of the hundreds of thousands who gathered on the Mall for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, which featured Dr. King’s famous speech.

“Not many people know the full title of that day’s entirely peaceful event—that it also focused on jobs—but it explains, in part, how Dr. King was much more than a leader of African Americans alone,” said Dr. Alexander.

Q: Why do you think Dr. King is honored with a memorial on the National Mall?
A: Dr. King definitely belongs in the circle of extraordinary American leaders and heroes whom we honor on the National Mall. The significance of Dr. King in American history was most memorably argued during the years that led up to the establishment of our national holiday that now recognizes his date of birth. During that time Dr. King’s importance and global impact were ultimately recognized almost universally. He remains the only non-president we so honor on the National Mall, and it should be so.

Too often he is thought of only as an African American leader, but this reading ignores the impact of his teachings worldwide, his work on gross economic disparities within our country and the acknowledgement of his importance when he was granted the Nobel Peace Prize.

Q: What were some of your reactions to the memorial?
A: The memorial in its entirety is inspiring, especially the way that the Mountain of Despair [the entrance to the memorial] leads to a feeling of awakening and enlightenment. The walls that feature inscriptions of his most memorable words are especially moving.

Q: What was the atmosphere like on the Mall on Aug. 28, 1963?
A: It was a remarkable day. I had a 15-month-old daughter, and pushed her in the stroller from our home in Southwest up to the Mall. My husband was working as an aide to President John F. Kennedy, so he was only with us for part of the time. The crowd was huge, multiracial and extraordinarily friendly. The organizers, drawing especially on the skills and leadership of [civil rights leader] A. Philip Randolph, had done an extraordinary job emphasizing the critical importance of the peaceful nature of the march. The streets of downtown Washington were filled with people from all over the country walking, carrying signs, singing and the like. I’d never seen so many people in one place before.

Q: Do you have any special memories of the day?
A: I particularly remember everyone singing “We Shall Overcome” and a spiritual by Mahalia Jackson. All sorts of leaders from the labor movement and civil rights movement spoke. Dorothy Height was a highlight for me, because she was the only female speaker, and, I later learned, was added only at the last moment. John Lewis, now a senior member of Congress, first wanted to give a fiery oration, but Mr. Randolph convinced him to tone it down in the spirit of the day.

The pinnacle of the afternoon, at least what everyone remembers, was Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It was, and remains, a highlight of American oratory, and everyone there knew that we were in the presence of greatness that day.

Q: For GW’s incoming students, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial may be among their first stops as they explore the many landmarks and museums on the National Mall. Can you suggest resources for those interested in learning more about Dr. King and civil rights? 
A: I’d like members of the GW community to better acquaint themselves with our city’s rich history in the civil rights movement in its entirety, not just during Dr. King’s era. I’d especially suggest looking at the biographies by David Levering Lewis and David Garrow. But beyond that, newcomers to D.C. might also want to see the memorial honoring Mary McLeod Bethune—a notable African American leader who preceded Dr. King—in Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill. Our city also is home to the splendidly restored Frederick Douglass House, run by the National Park Service in Anacostia, and the Black Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Memorial not far from Howard University.

Click here for information on visiting the memorial. 

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