Visitors pass through a narrow opening in the "mountain" to symbolize the struggle for civil rights before entering an open plaza. They won't discover King's statue right away. Designers intend for waterfalls to draw visitors to either side of the plaza to first see curving granite walls carved with 14 quotations from King, none of which is from the "Dream" speech — organizers said they wanted to focus on some of King's powerful but lesser-known words, such as his Nobel acceptance remarks and his "Letter from Birmingham Jail."
Originally, Jackson planned to fill the plaza with magnolia, pine and crepe myrtle trees to tie the landscape to the son of Georgia. Later, he learned Washington's famed cherry blossoms reach full bloom each April at the time when King was assassinated, so the design was changed to include 185 cherry trees.
The granite for King's statue was chosen because when lit at night, it lends a brownish tone to King's likeness. The stone, however, only exists in China, Jackson said; some wanted it to come from the United States.
King's statue stands taller than other human figures on the mall, though it does not seem overwhelming, said Thomas Luebke, an architect who serves as secretary to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, an agency that approved the design. The memorial to King puts him squarely between those of Thomas Jefferson, who espoused ideals of equality but was a slave owner, and Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves in the Civil War.
"It's nicely situated between the Jefferson and the Lincoln Memorial, so it's part of that conversation," he said. "That corner of the mall has started to have a little bit of a theme about the ideas of our democracy between Jefferson, (Franklin D.) Roosevelt and now King."
Eventually, Jackson hopes to add King's voice to the visitor's experience by introducing iPads or other devices with educational features and recordings of speeches while people walk through the plaza.
"Dr. King came along right at the height of the television era," he said. "So we can take advantage of that."
Soon after King's assassination in 1968, his widow, Coretta Scott King, established the King Center in the basement of the couple's Atlanta home to preserve his legacy. Now located near King's birthplace, a national historic site, it has become one of Atlanta's most popular tourist attractions. Though Coretta Scott King did not live to see the King Memorial become a reality, her relentless efforts were the catalyst for such a project, said their daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, especially given the country's feelings about her father during his life.
"He was one of the most hated men in America. He was considered an enemy of the government," she said. "And here we are 40-something years later, and he's being honored in this way by our nation. ... So it certainly speaks to the magnitude of some of the progress that we've made in the area of race relations."
The family has guarded King's memory closely. While Coretta Scott King was an early champion of the memorial, the family's efforts to seek fees from its fundraising briefly stalled the effort in 2001.
Later, the family secured an $800,000 licensing deal for use of King's words and images in fundraising for the memorial. After The Associated Press revealed the unusual arrangement in 2009, Bernice King and Martin Luther King III said they weren't aware of the details. They said the deal was mishandled by their brother, Dexter King, but was meant to benefit the King Center, which has struggled with funding for repairs at the site where King is entombed.
At the time, Intellectual Properties Management, an entity run by King's family, told the AP that proceeds it receives would go to the King Center out of concern that fundraising for the monument in Washington would undercut the center's donations. Some donors and scholars still bristled at the deal.
King's family has sued media companies for using the "I Have a Dream" speech without permission. Lawsuits also have been filed among the siblings over control of the estate.
Infighting and leadership troubles also have hobbled the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King helped found following the Montgomery bus boycott in the 1950s and played a major role in fighting segregation. Martin Luther King III was president from 1997 to 2004.
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