As I entered the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC this week, I marched through the mountain of despair. Looking through the gap, all I saw was the east, the water, the promise of life greater than myself. I can only imagine that this was the designer’s intent: that we would walk through the mountain of despair with King and emerge still looking forward.
Then, by turning around, I could look back on King’s likeness and memories of his work. This turning, this remembrance, is important. But King’s eyes direct me back to the east into the water, pushing me forward, spurring me to add to his work.
King is larger than life, standing 28 feet tall and emerging from a stone. The stone that was once part of the mountain of despair has been cut free, pulled forward, and engraved. A quote on its side reads, “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
His gaze is transfixed eastward across the tidal basin toward the Jefferson Memorial and Jefferson’s promise that “All men are created equal.” His back is turned toward the Lincoln Memorial, building on the nation’s progress in the fight for justice. His likeness emerges from the stone – complete, yet giving the appearance that more work can still be done.
Behind King, the arc of the memorial veers from the mountain of despair toward the Washington monument in one direction and toward the water in the other. The quotes engraved into the arc remind us that King’s legacy is one of hope, democracy, justice, and peace, reminding us that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail).
Water flows down from the mountain of despair, and the cherry trees in the plaza – now green – will blossom anew each spring. In the darkness, the monument is washed in light from beneath and from the reflection of the water on the gleaming likeness of King.
Like King himself, the memorial calls on us to remember the past, but more importantly to look forward to a brighter future.
Author’s note: My visit to the memorial on Tuesday August 29, 2011, was 2 days after the planned dedication of the site and 1 day after the anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech, for which a time capsule was buried on the site. Due to Hurricane Irene, the dedication was postponed for a later date. I wonder if the chains surrounding the statue of King in this image are permanent – in the same way that they serve as a barrier in the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, or if the chains will be removed - leaving the site open like the FDR memorial - following the dedication. This kind of openness to interaction is an important piece of many memorials, like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, for example.