This weekend is a big weekend here in the DC area, and not just because of the likely appearance of lovely Ms. Irene and her hurricane force winds and torrential rain. Unless you have been living under a rock, or a giant granite monolith for that matter, you know that Sunday is the official dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in downtown Washington DC.
This monument is a beautiful addition to those already in our nation’s capital. As guests approach the memorial from Independence Avenue, they are greeted by a massive stone wall, representing the “mountain of despair,” which has its middle cut out and pushed forward into the center of the memorial space. The middle piece is a physical manifestation of the “stone of hope.” It is on this slab of granite that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is carved in a spectacular fashion. This nod to his most famous speech, “I Have A Dream” is not necessarily subtle, but it’s obvious reference doesn’t create a feeling of amateurism either. Many visitors will be coming to this monument after having walked up the National Mall, through the series of monuments that ends with Abraham Lincoln’s, where a tile is set into the steps commemorating that same speech. People can go from standing on the exact spot where the speech was given to then venturing across the road and literally stepping into the words of that stirring oration, bringing not only its author, but its message to life.
Once inside the monument, the sides of the walls facing the Tidal Basin are covered with quotes, in chronological order, from MLK Jr.’s lifetime. Visitors move around the monument in a counter-clockwise direction, working their way through Dr. King’s experiences as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement. This loop passes back by the “stone of hope,” where guests have a chance to really take in the majesty of the thirty-foot statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. The visage of the statue is one that is both prideful and stern at the same time. It seems to radiate a sense of pride in how far his fight has come since the early 1960’s, but there is also a feeling that there are battles to still be fought when it comes to people being judged by their character, which they choose and create, rather than on traits with which they are born and have no control over. It is standing at this grand effigy that is bursting forth from a slab of granite that my favorite allusion to King and what he stood for is quietly played out. King’s sculpture looks out over the Tidal Basin, right into the Jefferson Memorial. As a major player in the writing of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson’s words “…all men are created equal” are perfect reflections of what King was trying to accomplish through his works.
While the monument doesn’t official open until Saturday, with the dedication taking place Sunday, I had the magnificent opportunity to go down and volunteer on Tuesday, the preview day. My volunteer duties were very much like what I did at numerous Red Cross events back in Idaho. I, along with Earl, my wonderful partner for the day, stood on the sidewalk offering commemorative bookmarks, free water and a chance to rest to the heavy stream of people headed towards the monument from the National Mall. We were there to not only pass out our goodies, but help by providing directions, information and help when needed. Earl and I started out duties at 8AM and had a really great day together. It was sunny and warm (I was chastised numerous times by old women who wanted to know why I wasn’t wearing a hat!), but we did our best to great each person headed up towards the monument and welcome them to DC’s newest addition. (It was also wonderful to talk to these same people as they made the return trip. I loved asking them what they thought after their visit. Out of the hundreds, probably thousands, of people I spoke with on Tuesday, I have to say that well-received is an understatement when it comes to public opinion of the memorial!) After hours of sunshine and no lunch, there came a moment when my head started spinning and my initial thought was, “I’m about to pass out!” Having experienced a rather unpleasant case of heat exhaustion in Cambodia a few summers ago, I thought I recognized the signs. It took me all of about two seconds to realize that no, this was not heat exhaustion, but another sensation with which I have experience- an earthquake!
My initial awareness of the earthquake was quickly followed by a scan of the area. I looked up and saw the light post and Washington Monument, both in motion. I looked down and could see the grass smoothly rolling under my tennis shoes. As I glanced over my shoulder, the previously glass-like Tidal Basin had some lovely whitecap swells on it. The quake was short, lasting only a matter of seconds. Even as the quake was taking place, people were still streaming towards the entrance of the memorial. Some people stopped to look around and to discuss if it fact they had just experienced an earthquake (a first for many long-time DC residents) and then calmly headed back on their way. As our tent and area seemed undamaged, people nearby not in need of any assistance, Earl and I went right back to handing out bookmarks and chatting with those headed to the memorial.
One of the fabulous parts about working the tent on the main pathway to the memorial was the really great people I got to meet. I was able to speak with a man who walked with Dr. King in Montgomery, another who was in jail with Dr. King in Birmingham and at least a dozen people who were in the crowd on August 28, 1963. I heard women tell stories of participating in the bus boycott in their hometowns and men talk of sit-ins at local businesses. These were suddenly not just chapters of a history textbook being read to me in sophomore history class by Mr. Cooper, but real people, real events, real soldiers in the fight for equality.
Before volunteering at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument on Tuesday, I don’t think I had a very good grasp on how important this opening was. I understood that his leadership was invaluable in changing the racial landscape of America; I understood that he was a man who deserved this recognition, but I think I understood these things strictly in an academic way. A day in the sun, greeting visitors, talking with people who experienced history in a way I can only imagine brought that understanding into a much more human, realistic realm. The pride was palpable on Tuesday. Countless people were in their Sunday best for their first visit to the memorial. The respect and admiration Dr. King’s leadership, his hard work and his life were unmistakable. While the earth may have moved me physically on Tuesday, my opportunity to serve at this historic event moved me intellectually and emotionally.