October crowds gather around the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C. A web-only photo by Flickr Creative Commons/sleaf13.
Under crystal blue skies and the best autumn temperatures October could offer, tens of thousands gathered on the mall in Washington to witness the official — and hurricane-delayed — dedication of the memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Small and large churches alike accepted the reality of empty pews at 11 Sunday morning, Oct. 16, as PBS news correspondent and master of ceremonies Gwen Ifill explained, “We get a pass for not being in church today.”
Even without the requisite stained-glass windows and ushers, a reverence for the day rested on the crowd easily, as spectators found seats and settled on grass, listening to the opening chords of a Hammond organ and the music of Atlanta’s Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church choir. The lines for the long-awaited celebration started forming before 6 a.m.
Elders came with granddaughters. Sorors came with sisters. United Methodists mingled with Baptists. Rabbi Israel Dresner offered remarks about how proud the Jewish community was to have been part of the Civil Rights Movement with King. This was a day King’s famous phrase about creating the beloved community was not only spoken from the dais; it was symbolized by the hands held in prayer.
A 70-year-old mother of four who did not want to be identified said, “I have been waiting my whole life for this moment.” She talked of the grief she felt as a child, living in the same city where King was assassinated, then stopped talking and broke into a broad smile as the images of the first family, walking slowly through the King memorial, showed on the giant TV screens.
“It’s them,” she said, with the trail of one tear catching the sunlight on her cheek. “This is what I have prayed for. A day I never thought would come. With God, nothing is impossible.”
Crowds cheer during a speech by President Barack Obama during the dedication on Oct. 16. A UMNS web-only photo by Jeneane Jones.
From the podium came remembrances of the civil rights leader including U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a United Methodist pastor and elder statesman of the Civil Rights Movement who recently celebrated his 90th birthday.
Lowery said King’s leadership gave birth to a new America. He quoted King’s speech upon receiving the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize to illustrate the faith that carried him and the country through turbulent times that still face the country today.
“I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of humankind,” King said at the award ceremony. “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, other-centered [people] can build up. This faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future.”
There also were recollections from those who watched King and the history he made. Dan Rather, retired CBS news anchor, said it was only in the years after the Civil Rights Movement that he learned the truth about rumors that his own CBS affiliate in Atlanta had routinely censored news stories during the Civil Rights Movement.
It was perhaps King’s daughter, a preacher, who stirred the crowd in a most-familiar way. Cheers erupted several times, as Elder Bernice King’s voice took on the cadence and eloquence reminiscent of her father to remind the spectators that “this celebration honoring Dr. King is not just for African Americans but for all Americans and citizens from around this world.”
Bernice King reflected on Hurricane Irene, which postponed the original dedication that was to coincide with the anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. She said, “Perhaps it was divine interruption to remind us of the King who moved us beyond the dream of racial justice to the action and work of economic justice.”
People join hands during the closing benediction of the memorial dedication. A UMNS web-only photo by Jeneane Jones.
The crowd listened as speeches that were part sermon and part protest urged them to press for children’s rights, disrupt the cradle-to-prison pipeline that consumes young people of color, demand health care for all and reject a national mentality that allows legislative leaders to “normalize poverty.” The Rev. Al Sharpton left the crowd with a challenge: “King’s not coming back. We’re all we have left.”
President Obama’s arrival on the stage captivated the crowd, transforming it into a group of political supporters with chants of “four more years.” The president’s speech covered the same themes that King himself spoke of some 48 years earlier — war, economic crisis and ending the racial divide.
It was not lost on Obama, or the crowd, that without King’s place in history, the president’s place in history would not have been secured. He told the crowd that King “stirred our conscience.”
“I know we will overcome. I know this because of the man towering over us,” he assured them.
The King Memorial, 15 years in the making and the first on the National Mall honoring a black leader, stands some 30 feet high between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials.
The sculpture of King with his arms crossed appears to be cut out of a mountain. A line from King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1964 — “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope” — inspired Chinese artist Lei Yixin.
*Jones is director of communications and public media for the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race.
News media contact: Maggie Hillery, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.