National memorials, like the events and people they commemorate, require the distance of time to allow proper consideration of their place in the landscape and to earn a spot on the “must see” stops on the D.C. tourist list. Washington is littered with memorials whose subjects are lost to history or at least to the average tourist. How many people can identify say, General George Meade? His memorial stands on Pennsylvania Avenue. For the record, he was the Union commander at the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War.
This past year, Washington gained another very prominent memorial, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial dedicated this past October. The focal point, a relief of a standing King, looms 30 feet high, hewn from a piece of granite called the Stone of Hope. The piece looks like it has been cut out of a larger piece behind it, called the Mountain of Despair. The imagery is taken from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech delivered only a few hundred yards from the memorial’s site in August 1963. King is depicted with arms folded in a pensive stance, a somewhat surprising design choice since many people recall his passion and oratory skills. A variety of King quotes complete the monument.
The memorial sits on the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park near the site of perhaps his most famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial, delivered to over 200,000 people. A definining moment of the Civil Rights Movement, the speech is still considered a masterpiece of rhetoric and every person should take a few minutes to listen to it. Be sure to listen to the entire speech, and hear the moment when King departs from his prepared text and goes into preaching mode, an escalating cadence filled with words coming from his heart and as inspiring today as they were then.
Every national memorial must rightly go through epic design and location reviews (battles might be a more appropriate word). This one was no exception. The memorial is made of Chinese granite and was sculpted by a Chinese artist, a fact that remains controversial. Plus critical voices say a main quote is taken out of context and paraphrased. One wonders what King would think. Would he be happy with how he is portrayed? Would he want a memorial to his honor?
In early April the thousands of cherry trees surrounding the Tidal Basin will be in their full glory and tens of thousands of visitors will clog the well-worn cherry blossom path around the basin. If they circle the entire basin, they will pass three national memorials. Martin Luther King, Jr. stands in simplicity next to the sprawling Franklin Roosevelt Memorial and across the Tidal Basin from the classical Thomas Jefferson Memorial. All three men left a legacy which was a product of their time. Their place in American history, especially African American history, will continue to be debated and analyzed. Two hundred years from now I wonder which of the memorials will be on the “must see” list for Washington tourists.