King monument takes its place on National Mall
WASHINGTON - Promising that “change can come if you don’t give up,’’ President Obama yesterday called on Americans to use the memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to help push for progress in today’s economically tough times.
Speaking at the dedication of the monument to King on the National Mall, Obama said Americans must celebrate all that the civil rights movement accomplished even as they understand that the work is not done. Standing under the new monument, the first on the mall to honor an African-American, Obama struck tones that veered from the church pulpit to the floors of the nearby Capitol.
“I know there are better days ahead,’’ Obama said, his voice rising. “I know this because of the man towering above me.’’
At times, the words Obama used to describe King’s struggles might also apply to himself.
“For every victory, there were setbacks,’’ Obama said. “Even after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King was vilified by many.’’
He continued, “He was even attacked by his own people, by those who felt he was going too fast and by those who felt he was going too slow.’’
Obama’s speech culminated a morning during which a lion’s gallery of civil rights and black leaders stood on the podium to hail that a preacher of no rank had joined Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt to be memorialized in perpetuity in the National Mall area.
Thousands of people crowded the mall for the festivities, which had been rescheduled because of Tropical Storm Irene.
The memorial - a 4-acre tract along the Tidal Basin dotted with elm and cherry trees and anchored by an imposing granite statue of King - is the result of more than two decades of work. It was originally scheduled to be dedicated in August to coincide with the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington and King’s “I Have a Dream’’ speech, which was delivered at the Lincoln Memorial.
The three-hour ceremony included speeches by civil rights leaders including Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson and music by performers such as Aretha Franklin.
People came from all over for the event. Yvonne Binis took an early-morning train with her 4-year-old grandson from Linden, N.J. Binis’s mother participated in the March on Washington, and she said she came in honor of that.
“I’m here to see what she came down for,’’ Binis said, carrying a large folding chair in a backpack.
After attending the dedication ceremony, civil rights activist and Princeton University professor Cornel West was arrested while protesting on the steps of the Supreme Court about corporate influence in politics, the Associated Press reported.
A Supreme Court spokeswoman said 19 people were arrested after they refused to leave the grounds of the court. They were part of a group taking part in the October 2011 Stop the Machine protest in Washington’s Freedom Plaza.
Some in the crowd for the dedication ceremony remembered their childhoods in the Jim Crow South. Carolyn Bledsoe, 70, recalled being turned away from a restaurant in Goldsboro, N.C., in the 1950s, because she was black.
“We got very scared,’’ she said, sitting in a blue dress jacket and a white baseball cap, with an insignia of the memorial on it. “We thought we might be followed.’’
Obama is facing stiff challenges in his bid for reelection next year, particularly as the country is grappling with a 9.1 percent unemployment rate and a global economy that is reeling.
He urged patience. “Change depends on persistence,’’ Obama said. “When met with hardship, when confronting disappointment, Dr. King refused to accept what he called the ‘is-ness’ of today,’’ Obama said. “He kept pushing toward the ‘oughtness’ of tomorrow.’’
Obama said that “when we think of all the work that we must do,’’ including rebuilding the economy and fixing ailing schools, “we can’t be discouraged by what is; we’ve got to be pushing for what ought to be.’’
The monument is not only the first to a black man on the Mall and its adjoining parks but also the first to honor someone who was not a president, according to the foundation in charge of installing it, something that has been an inspiration to many.
“I drive past the Mall every day, and to see that Martin Luther King is now there with Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, and Roosevelt - that is powerful,’’ said Lonnie Bunch, a founding director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
King’s stone figure faces the Jefferson Memorial across the water. Lincoln is at his back, and Roosevelt to his right.
The design gave form to a line from King’s “Dream’’ speech: “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.’’
In the statue, he is emerging from a large piece of stone. Two towering granite mounds set behind him are the mountains of despair.
Bunch said the dedication offered an opportunity to assess race relations in America.
“We are not in a postracial America, but in an America that allows us to talk about race candidly in different ways,’’ he said. “Having a statue of Martin Luther King, without even saying it, lets people know that this is a different Mall, this is a different America.’’
For those who knew King, the dedication offered an opportunity to remember the emotion and the intensity of the civil rights movement.
“The March on Washington was the point where the whole country seemed to come together,’’ said Sterling Tucker, a civil rights leader who worked with King. “It felt like, here we are, marching together as a nation in the right direction.’’
Tucker, who is president of the National Theater in Washington, said he experienced the same feeling when Obama was elected in 2008. That this country elected an African-American, he said, was possible only because of the work done by King’s generation, a point that Obama himself has often made.