The MLK Memorial's Complicated History

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The National Mall, a wide expanse in the heart of the nation's capital, is home to numerous monuments honoring U.S. presidents and military sacrifice. This week, the setting's latest commemorative work opens to the public: the long-awaited Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial.

Bordering Washington, D.C.'s Tidal Basin between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, a 30-foot granite sculpture of the prominent civil rights activist looms. It's flanked by a crescent-shaped wall inscribed with 14 excerpts from some of King's most notable sermons and speeches. Further enhancing the site are 182 cherry blossom trees, which will reach full bloom each April, the month of King's death. And the memorial's street address, 1964 Independence Avenue, references the 1964 Voting Rights Act, a milestone of the civil rights movement....

The vision to build a national memorial for Martin Luther King Jr. was initially conceived in 1984 by Alpha Phi Alpha, the African-American fraternity of which King was a member. Congress authorized the memorial in 1996, and two years later the Alphas set up a foundation to manage fundraising -- to the tune of $120 million -- and design.

We didn't want it to just be a monument or a statue, but a living memorial," said Johnson. "It was important that it tell a story, so that people could walk through and read the words of Dr. King and have those words still have relevance today."...

In 2006 a search team traveled to St. Paul, Minn., for a stone-carving forum that was attended by sculptors from all over the world. "Simply put, our task was to find the best person to do the job, regardless of their country or state of origin," said Jackson.

There they met Lei Yixin of China, who they ultimately decided was that person. One of a small group of artists designated as "master sculptors" in his country, Lei had already carved more than 150 large public statues. "Readily I could see that I was standing before someone with exceptional talent," said Jackson, who was also impressed by Lei's experience and confidence in carving stone on a monumental scale. "I didn't say good; I didn't say great. I said exceptional."

Several months later, after visiting Lei's studio in China, where he presented different models of the sculpture -- including, to their surprise, a full-scale, 30-foot replica -- the team offered Lei the job....

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