By Ben Nuckols
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Some were locals who’ve watched for years as the memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. took shape on the National Mall. Some were tourists who happened to be in Washington the day it opened. All felt honored to be a part of history as they gazed at a towering granite sculpture of the civil rights leader.
Hundreds of people slowly filed through the entrance to the 4-acre memorial site on a warm, sunny Monday morning in the nation’s capital. Before reaching the sculpture, they passed through two pieces of granite carved to resemble the sides of a mountain.
About 50 feet ahead stands the 30-foot-tall sculpture by Chinese artist Lei Yixin. King appears to emerge from a stone extracted from the mountain, facing southeast across the Tidal Basin to the Jefferson Memorial.
The design is inspired by a line from King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered during the March on Washington in 1963: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
While visitors snapped photos, shot videos, and spoke with dozens of reporters, the mood was quiet and respectful.
“I’m ecstatic,” said Tehran Wadley, 35, of Washington. “It brings tears to my eyes, just to be able to see this.”
King is the first person of color to have a memorial on the Mall. It is surrounded by memorials to presidents — Thomas Jefferson to the southeast, Abraham Lincoln to the northwest, Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the south.
Monday’s opening had little fanfare, but that will change during a week of events leading up to Sunday’s dedication, which falls on the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington. President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak at the ceremony.
The memorial cost $120 million, and Harry E. Johnson, president of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, said the group is $5 million short of that goal.
The sheer size of the King sculpture sets it apart from the nearby statues of Jefferson and Lincoln, which are both about 20 feet tall. It stands at the midpoint of a 450-foot-long granite wall inscribed with 14 quotations from King’s speeches and writings. Among them: “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The sculpture depicts King with a stern, enigmatic gaze, wearing a jacket and tie, his arms folded and clutching papers in his left hand. Lei, the sculptor, said through his son, who translated from Mandarin, that “you can see the hope” in King’s face. But his serious demeanor, Lei said, also indicates that “he’s thinking.”
Lei said he wanted the memorial to be a visual representation of the ideals in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Who is Lei Yixin?
Born in 1953 in Changsha, Hunan, China, Lei Yixin is a master sculptor, a designation in China that comes with a lifetime stipend from the government.Born to scholars, Lei was one of millions of youth sent to the countryside to work during the Cultural Revolution. As a way to develop a skill away from manual labor, he started drawing in a diary. He later applied to a college and submitted the diary as his portfolio.
He graduated from college in 1982, as one of about 100 art majors at the time. Lei has sculpted about 150 public monuments, with the most notable one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which was unveiled this month.
Lei is a director of Chinese Sculpture Association, a member of National City Sculpture Association, vice president of Artists Association of Hunan Province, vice dean of the Painting and Calligraphy Academic Institute, and dean of the Sculpture Institute of Hunan Province.
“His dream is very universal. It’s a dream of equality,” Lei said through his son. “He went to jail. He had been beaten, and he sacrificed his life for his dream. And now his dream comes true.”
The memorial site is surrounded by 182 Yoshino cherry trees that will blossom pink and white in the spring.
The dedication ceremony will take place Aug. 28. President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak. (end)