Hurricane Threatens MLK Dedication Ceremony

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Celebrations scheduled for Sunday to mark the opening of Martin Luther King, Jr's memorial on the National Mall are being threatened by Hurricane Irene, as it hurtles up the Atlantic.

Officials watching the storm now say it could threaten to postpone or delay the dedication ceremony. The storm, currently a Category 2, could reach landfall in the US by the end of the week.

But the skies were still blue over Washington today, as visitors streamed into the Martin Luther King Memorial as it opened to the public for the first time this week ahead of Sunday's dedication ceremony.

Nearly 50 years after his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech on the National Mall, MLK Jr's memorial is joining some of America's most influential figures carved in stone there -- Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

"It feels like it's long overdue that a man who's contributed so much to the people of this country and to the world is finally getting his justice," said Jeri Green of Washington, who visited the memorial.

"At a time when African Americans are hurting so much by the economy and continued challenges, not withstanding having our first African American president, it's just so befitting and it's a mixture of emotions," Green said.

Inspiration for the design came from a line in King's "I Have a Dream" speech, which he delivered 48 years ago on the National Mall during the March on Washington: "Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope."

"King becomes the stone of hope, so it's designed to be that he himself, the man, the image of King emerges from that stone that comes from the mountain of despair," said Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, a federal design review agency.

Visitors can walk to the main memorial through the "Mountain of Despair," a large rock cut in two. At the center of the memorial stands the "Stone of Hope," with a statue of King on the far side, overlooking the Tidal Basin. Encircling the monument are marble walls on which 14 of King's most famous quotes from his speeches, sermons and writings are etched.

But missing from the quotes lining the memorial is his iconic "I Have a Dream" line. The architects say they chose to not include the line since so much of the memorial was already based on the speech, and they wanted to highlight his other celebrated passages.

The memorial was 15 years in the making, beginning with a resolution signed in 1996 by President Bill Clinton to establish a memorial "honoring the life, the dream and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." on the National Mall.

The ceremonial groundbreaking for the memorial took place on Nov. 13, 2006, and the dedication is scheduled for Sunday, the 48th anniversary of Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech, which he delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

Gloria Coles, a 73-year-old Washington native who took part in the March on Washington with her 13-year-old daughter, visited the memorial Monday to honor King's accomplishments.

"I did a lot of protesting at the monument when it was happening before, so I follow Dr. King, his history," Coles said. "This is history-making. The memorial itself, just to be here on these grounds, downtown here, means a lot. Didn't put it on the outskirts, put it right here where everybody else is."

While the memorial provides the public with a way to honor King's legacy, some controversy arose over the course of its construction.

Lei Yixin, the sculptor chosen to mold King's figure, is Chinese, not American, and some have taken issue with his depiction of King.

Ed Dwight, a sculptor who worked on the project, said Yixin's design does not properly portray King's peaceful nature.

"He totally missed the boat here. Dr. King didn't look like that. He never wore clothes like that," Dwight said. "People are upset about his arms folded, the very strong look he has on his face.

"If you flew in here from Mars you'll never know what he did, because there's nothing on the memorial that says what he did -- nothing about Selma, nothing about Memphis," he said. "Maybe rightly so they wanted to use these elevating, high lofty sayings, but I was more concerned about young kids walking in there and not being able to interpret what all that means."

Because King's family has copyrighted the civil rights leader's words and images, the memorial foundation had to pay more than $800,000 in fees to use King's likeness in the memorial.

The King memorial is the only one on the mall that does not celebrate a president or honor a war, but many visitors said Monday that the civil rights leader deserves to be there.

Bill and Barbara Frame of Medford Lakes, N.J., bring a group of middle school children for a tour of Washington each year and said they look forward to adding the MLK memorial to their tour itinerary.

"It's about great people in our country's history. It's not about whether you're president or not. You could pick out great presidents, and you could pick out mediocre presidents, but this man was just a great man," Bill Frame said. "It's a way for them to reflect back to the legacy to remember. The Vietnam wall when it opened there was controversy, but now it's a must-see place to go and I believe this will become that also."

Tyrone Ward of Woodbridge, Va., brought his 10-year-old son Branson to teach him the importance of King's life.

"It means steps in the right direction. This was an intangible dream initially, but it's become tangible through time, through understanding, through cultures accepting one another's lifestyle," Ward said. "I implore everybody to bring their kids. You can't just let Martin Luther King be in the history books. This is a tangible honor of who he was."

The nation's capitol will celebrate King, his legacy and leadership in the civil rights movement, and the new memorial throughout the week. The memorial organization plans luncheons Wednesday and Thursday to honor civil rights pioneers, as well as the women leaders of the civil rights movement.

A concert honoring the music of the civil rights era, "The Message in the Music," is scheduled for Thursday night, and Saturday evening is the Dream Gala, followed by the official memorial dedication Sunday afternoon.

President Obama, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, King's family and other key figures from the civil rights era are all scheduled to speak at the dedication ceremony Sunday.