By BEN NUCKOLS
WASHINGTON — 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.
“I think it’s appropriate,” said Frank Myers, 49, a Teamsters union officer from King George, Va. “His contribution was just as great as any of the presidents. This country’s come a long way as a result of him and people like him.”
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.
“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.”
King was assassinated in 1968 while supporting black sanitation workers who had gone on strike in Memphis, Tenn.
The memorial site is surrounded by 182 Yoshino cherry trees that will blossom pink and white in the spring. It’s intended to be peaceful, giving visitors an opportunity to reflect on King’s words and legacy.
Geraldine Newton, 59, a tourist from Surrey, England, took that opportunity Monday, sitting on a bench and reading the inscriptions. She said the inclusion of the King memorial on the Mall was a significant milestone.
“Hats off to America. It’s facing up to periods in its past that were very challenging,” Newton said. “He’s a quintessential American hero.”
Pamela M. Cross, 53, a cybersecurity professional from Washington, said her father, a postal worker, attended the March on Washington. She said King’s message continues to resonate.
“The way the country is right now, it’s good to remember his principles,” Cross said. “We are in need of jobs, we’re in need of equality, we’re in need of an economic vision that’s inclusive.”
Myers was 1 during the march, but his late father and his aunts and uncles attended. Asked how his father would react if he could see the memorial, he said: “I think he’d be in tears.”