WASHINGTON (AP) — Thousands of people gathered at Sunday to give the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial a proper dedication on the National Mall after its opening in August.
Aretha Franklin, poet Nikki Giovanni and President Barack Obama will be among those honoring the legacy of the nation’s foremost civil rights leader during a ceremony scheduled to run more than four hours.
Cherry Hawkins traveled from Houston with her cousins and arrived at 6 a.m. to be part of the dedication. They postponed earlier plans to attend the August dedication, which was postponed because of Hurricane Irene.
“I wanted to do this for my kids and grandkids,” Hawkins said. She expects the memorial will be in their history books someday. “They can say, ‘Oh, my granny did that.'”
Hawkins, her cousin DeAndrea Cooper and Cooper’s daughter Brittani Jones, 23, visited the King Memorial on Saturday after joining a march with the Rev. Al Sharpton to urge Congress to pass a jobs bill.
“You see his face in the memorial, and it’s kind of an emotional moment,” Cooper said. “It’s beautiful. They did a wonderful job.”
A stage for speakers and thousands of folding chairs were set up on a field near the memorial along with large TV screens.
Some attendees started lining up at 5 a.m. and even earlier Sunday morning. Organizers anticipate as many as 50,000 people will attend. By 9 a.m., thousands of seats were filled, and attendees were greeted with bright sunlight.
The August ceremony had been expected to draw 250,000.
Even with the smaller crowd, King Memorial foundation president Harry Johnson called Sunday “a day of fulfillment.”
About 1.5 million people are estimated to have visited the 30-foot-tall statue of King and the granite walls where 14 of his quotations are carved in stone. The memorial is the first on the National Mall honoring a black leader.
The sculpture of King with his arms crossed appears to emerge from a stone extracted from a mountain. It was carved by Chinese artist Lei Yixin. The design was inspired by a line from the famous “I Have a Dream” speech 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.
King’s older sister, Christine King Farris, said she witnessed a baby become “a great hero to humanity.” She said the memorial will ensure her brother’s legacy will provide a source of inspiration worldwide for generations.
“He was my little brother, and I watched him grow and develop into a man who was destined for a special kind of greatness,” she said. To young people in the crowd, she said King’s message is that “Great dreams can come true and America is the place where you can make it happen.”
King’s daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, said her family is proud to witness the memorial’s dedication. She said it was a long time coming and had been a priority for her mother, Coretta Scott King, who died in 2006.
Bernice King and her brother Martin Luther King III said their father’s dream is not yet realized. Martin Luther King III said the nation has “lost its soul” when it tolerates vast economic disparities, teen bullying, and having more people of color in prison than in college.
He said the memorial should serve as a catalyst to renew his father’s fight for social and economic justice.
“The problem is the American dream of 50 years ago … has turned into a nightmare for millions of people” who have lost their jobs and homes, King said.
The choir from King’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta was scheduled to sing.
The nation’s first black president, who was just 6 years old when King was assassinated in April 1968 in Memphis, Tenn., will speak about the man he has said “gave his life serving others.”
Giovanni planned to read her poem “In the Spirit of Martin,” and Franklin was to sing.
Early in the ceremony, during a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the crowd cheered when images on screen showed Obama on the night he won the 2008 presidential election.
Organizers announced a concert will follow the dedication, featuring Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Sheryl Crow and others.