Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — For many who helped dedicate the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on Sunday, the towering granite monument is a stark reminder that the civil rights leader's dream of social and economic justice has yet to be realized.
In many ways, the ceremony was a passing of the torch to a younger generation with speeches marked by fierce rhetoric over the nation's economic disparities.
Thousands gathered at the memorial site, some as early as 5 a.m., to hear President Barack Obama, King's children and other civil rights leaders. Speaker after speaker invoked King's "I Have a Dream" speech from 1963 to challenge others to carry on his fight.
"Yes, my father had a dream. It was a dream, he said, that was deeply embedded in the American dream," said King's son Martin Luther King III. "The problem is the American dream of 50 years ago ... has turned into a nightmare for millions" who have lost their jobs and homes.
The nation has "lost its soul," he said, when it tolerates such vast economic disparities, teen bullying, and having more people of color in prison than in college.
His sister, the Rev. Bernice King, reminded the crowd that just before her father's assassination in 1968, he was mobilizing a poor people's campaign to occupy the nation's capital until the economic system changed.
She said the postponement of an earlier dedication because of Hurricane Irene that was planned on Aug. 28, the 48th anniversary of her father's "Dream" speech, may have been an act of God.
"Perhaps the postponement was a divine interruption to remind us of a King that moved us beyond the dream of racial justice to the action and work of economic justice," she said. "Perhaps God wanted us to move beyond the 'dream' into action."
Other speakers included union leaders, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador who was an aide to King. Young urged the crowd to vote for a president who has their interests at heart.
Actress Cicely Tyson said her contemporaries are passing the fight on to a new generation. She passed the microphone to 12-year-old Amandla Stenberg. The girl recalled learning about the civil rights movement in school and named four young girls killed in a 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala.
"As Dr. King said at their funeral, 'They didn't live long lives, but they lived meaningful lives,'" Amandla said. "I plan to live a meaningful life, too."
Some looked to Obama to carry on King's legacy.
Street vendors nearby sold framed photographs edited to depict King and the nation's first black president conversing together in the Oval Office, along with a wide swath of buttons, posters and other souvenirs showing King and Obama.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia said Obama's election was "just a down payment" on King's dream. "We're not there yet," he said.
About 1.5 million people are estimated to have visited the memorial's 30-foot-tall statue of King and its granite walls where 14 of his quotations are carved in stone since it opened in August. 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 "Dream" speech: "Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope."
Obama, who was just 6 years old when King was assassinated, saluted the civil rights icon as a man who pushed the nation toward what it "ought" to be and who changed hearts and minds.
"He had faith in us," Obama said. "And that is why he belongs on this Mall: Because he saw what we might become."
"As tough as times may be, I know we will overcome," Obama said. "I know there are better days ahead."
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