WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is to talk about the slain civil rights leader who gave his life serving others as he helps dedicate the new monument to Martin Luther King Jr. on the National Mall, joined by Aretha Franklin and poet Nikki Giovanni with thousands looking on Sunday.
The nation’s first black president is one of several speakers expected for Sunday’s delayed dedication of the 30-foot granite sculpture depicting the late Rev. King, the first monument on the mall in the nation’s capital honoring a black leader. A late August dedication ceremony had to be postponed when Hurricane Irene blustered up the East Coast, dumping heavy rain around Washington.
Obama was just 6 years old when King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., in April 1968. But the president has often talked about the influence that King’s life, particularly his commitment to public service, has had on him.
In a 2009 newspaper editorial written just days before his inauguration, Obama wrote that King “lived his life as a servant to others,” and urged Americans to follow his example and find ways to enrich other people’s lives in their communities.
Valerie Jarrett, a White House senior adviser and friend of the president, said recently that she expects the president’s remarks “to come straight from the heart.” A four-hour program was expected to include activities starting from about 8 a.m. EDT and including Obama’s address before midday.
King’s “willingness to sacrifice himself for our country, to fight for a dream he believed in, like justice and equality, really gave a foundation for President Obama becoming the president,” Jarrett said.
Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, and daughters Malia and Sasha paid an advance visit to the memorial Friday evening as journalists were kept back in vans on a service road leading to the site, situated near the Tidal Basin between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials.
The sculpture of King, arms crossed, appears to emerge from a stone extracted from a mountain and was fashioned by Chinese artist Lei Yixin. The sculpture depicts King with a stern, enigmatic gaze, wearing a jacket and tie, his arms folded and clutching papers in his left hand.
The memorial’s design was inspired by a line from the famous 1963 “Dream” speech delivered during the March on Washington in 1963: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” King’s “Dream” speech during the March on Washington galvanized the civil rights movement.
The sculpture is the centerpiece of the $120 million memorial, which also includes a 450-foot-long granite wall inscribed with 14 quotations from King’s speeches and writings. King is the first person who was not a U.S. president to be memorialized on the National Mall.
King’s sister Christine King Farris was scheduled to speak during the Sunday morning dedication program, along with his son Martin Luther King III and daughter Bernice King. The choir from King’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta also was planning to sing.
Giovanni planned to read her poem “In the Spirit of Martin” and Franklin was to sing. A stage for speakers and thousands of folding chairs were set up on a field nearby along with large TV screens.
The dedication had originally been set for Aug. 28, the 48th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, when organizers initially had expected as many as 250,000 people in attendance. But organizers hastily postponed that plan, hours ahead of Hurricane Irene.
The hurricane that blew past Washington downed tree branches and knocked out traffic lights around the capital while playing havoc with travel plans along the East Coast. The memorial took on a small amount of water from the Tidal Basin during the storm, but sustained no damage, the National Park Service said.