Thousands attended the formal dedication Sunday of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall – an emotional day for those, including President Obama, who came to honor the slain civil rights leader.
As the choir from King’s home church in Atlanta took the stage, people streamed into the park, just west of the King Memorial, carrying chairs, cardboard boxes to sit on, and their children. There were tears on the faces of some in the rainbow crowd, and big smiles on others such as Edna Smith Hector, who said she was proud to be there.
“It’s an honor to him – and for us as a race,” she said.
Jim Nichols, who had come from South Carolina with his wife, said he thought some of King’s dreams were fulfilled.
“They have been achieved – not like he would want nor as he predicted — but I think we’re on the way,” he said.
But many who spoke noted that while some things have changed, the nation still faces many of the challenges King battled against. Obama told the rapt crowd that while it is right to honor King’s dream, and his vision of unity, “Nearly 50 years after the March on Washington, our work, King’s work, is not complete.”
Obama ticked off a list of things still to be done – from rebuilding the economy and making sure the economic system is one where everyone gets their fair share, to fixing the schools and the nation’s health care system. But he also spoke very personally about what he wants his daughters to take away from this memorial and what he thinks King would have wanted them to know.
“He would want them to know that he had setbacks because they will have setbacks. He would want them to know that he had doubts because they will have doubts,” he said. “He would want them to know that he had flaws because all of us have flaws.”
Obama said America admired King precisely because he was a man of flesh and blood – not stone.
King’s daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, also shared personal thoughts about her father. She said he’d have much to say about the poverty, unemployment and violence plaguing the nation, and about the protests – such as Occupy Wall Street — that have been occurring globally.
“I hear my father saying what we are seeing now all across the streets of America and the world is a freedom explosion,” she said.
Keeping in the vein of personal thoughts about King, Aretha Franklin performed “Precious Lord,” a song she said he often asked her to sing.
Former Ambassador Andrew Young recounted a funny story about King.
“You think of Martin Luther as a giant of a man, but the one complex he had was a complex about his height,” Young recalled. “He was really just 5 feet 7 and he was always getting upset with tall people who look down on him. Now he’s 30 feet tall looking down on everybody.”
King’s older sister Christine King Farris told the audience that she saw a baby grow into a great hero to humanity who provided hope to freedom loving people everywhere.
“You have ensured that his legacy will provide a source of inspiration for people all over the world for generations to come,” she said.
That’s exactly what Kiyani Johnson said she was hoping.
“This is our legacy. This is our future — and if we don’t pass it on, it will be lost and that would be tragic,” she said.
Johnson brought her 11- and 13-year-old daughters so they could honor King.
“I have one daughter that’s biracial and I want her to understand that she might not even exist if this man hadn’t done what he did,” she said.
Johnson says she tells her daughters if they don’t understand where they come from as a people, they won’t be able to direct where they’re going to go in the future.