By Richard Clough
WASHINGTON -- Only a select number of Americans have been honored with individual monuments on the National Mall in Washington. There are no memorials to historic African-Americans. And few, if any, of those enshrined there were ever jailed.
But that's all about to change.
Nearly 40 years after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., construction began Monday on a National Mall memorial honoring the civil rights icon.
King's enduring legacy brought out presidents past and present, celebrities and a slew of supporters on a cool, gray day for a groundbreaking ceremony, where praise for the civil rights leader was in no short supply.
"Dr. King was on this Earth just 39 years, but the ideas that guided his work and his life are eternal," President Bush said at the ceremony. "Here in this place, we will raise a lasting memorial to those eternal truths. Honoring Dr. King's legacy requires more than building a monument, it requires the ongoing commitment of every American."
The King monument will be built near the Lincoln Memorial, where in 1963 the civil rights leader delivered his famous "I have a dream" speech.
Some 43 years later, Bush said that the new monument would stand as a testament to the ideals King espoused on that August day.
"An assassin's bullet could not shatter the dream," the president said. "Dr. King's message of justice and brotherhood took hold in the hearts of men and women across the great land of ours. It continues to inspire millions across the world."
In good company
Just steps from the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials and the Washington Monument, King's memorial places the civil rights leader in the pantheon of renowned American leaders. The National Mall has for years been an exclusive club for memorials, and King can soon be added to a list that includes just four presidents and a Civil War hero—engineer John Ericsson, designer of the iron-plated USS Monitor—with individual memorials.
President Bill Clinton signed legislation in 1996 approving construction of the monument, 12 years after members of the national black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha began calling for a King memorial.
The $100 million memorial will feature flowing water, stones and trees that designers say will represent themes of democracy, justice and hope. The stones will be inscribed with text from King's speeches.
Project organizers have raised $65.5 million for construction of the memorial, mostly from corporate donors, and completion is planned for the spring of 2008.
On Monday, Clinton testified to King's ideals, saying his messages resonate in today's world.
"When the real battlefield is the human heart, civil disobedience works better than suicide bombing," Clinton said. "Fighting your opponents with respect and reason works better than aspersion and attack.
'A source of inspiration'
Clinton said the King memorial, standing among monuments to other great Americans, would serve as a reminder that the civil rights leader fought to advance the ideal of equality set in motion by his predecessors.
"Here there will be a memorial to Martin Luther King, the voice and spirit of the movement to lift the last legal racial barriers to our more perfect union," Clinton said.
In a letter read by ABC's Diane Sawyer, former South African President Nelson Mandela said King provided inspiration for civil rights movements across the globe.
"Dr. King's legacy is timeless and generations will continue to look back on his work as a source of inspiration and hope," Mandela said in his letter. "Dr. King had the nobility of spirit to stand in the path of tyranny and injustice without seeking selfish gain."
Talk show host Oprah Winfrey said she does not take her success for granted, and she is grateful for King's achievements in elevating the black community.
"I live in a state of perpetual gratitude because I know that I didn't get to be who I am, where I am, alone," she said. "Because he was the seed of the free—Dr. King—I get to be the blossom and live the dream that he dreamed for his children."
Washington Mayor Anthony Williams echoed that sentiment when he said King "opened the doors of opportunity for each and every one of us."
On the guest list
Among the notables attending the ceremony were members of King's family, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, writer Maya Angelou and Jesse Jackson.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) represents for many the strides African-Americans have made in politics.
Obama invoked King's "I have a dream" speech as he spoke of his two daughters, saying that the civil rights leader's struggles allowed Obama's children to "live today with the freedom God intended, their citizenship unquestioned, their dreams unbounded.
"The man we honor today did what God required," Obama said. "In the end, that is what I will tell my daughters."