WASHINGTON — With Hurricane Irene bearing down on the nation's capital, organizers postponed a planned weekend dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall, dashing hopes of paying tribute to the civil rights leader on the 48th anniversary of his "I Have a Dream" speech.
The dedication had been planned for 11 a.m. Sunday, and organizers expected up to 250,000 people to attend. President Barack Obama was one of the scheduled speakers, and organizers were in the process of setting up a stage and chairs beside the King memorial, which sits on a 4-acre waterfront site in the nation's capital.
Harry Johnson, the president of the foundation that built the memorial, announced at a hastily called news conference Thursday evening that the dedication will be postponed until September or October. Hours earlier, Johnson had insisted at another media briefing that the dedication would continue as scheduled.
He changed his mind after studying forecasts that indicated Irene was strengthening and tracking more toward the west.
"I remained optimistic all day, but Mother Nature is Mother Nature," Johnson said. "I'm very disappointed and hurt, really. We all are."
Heavy winds and rain were forecast in Washington for Sunday morning, with Irene expected to take an unpredictable path up the East Coast, the National Weather Service said.
The possibility that a hurricane direct hit would disrupt the dedication was slim. The last named storm to do major damage in the Washington area was Isabel in 2003, and a major hurricane — considered a Category 3 with winds of at least 111 mph — hasn't hit the East Coast since Hurricane Jeanne struck Florida in 2004.
A black-tie gala scheduled for Saturday night was canceled, the foundation said. However, the memorial was to be open to the public all day Friday and from 8 a.m. to noon Saturday. Johnson said that in hindsight, his best decision was to open the memorial to the public on Monday ahead of the dedication.
"The memorial is going to be there forever," he said.
Organizers will need to consult with the National Park Service and obtain a new permit before they settle on a new date for the dedication.
The centerpiece of the memorial is a 30-foot sculpture of King by Chinese artist Lei Yixin. King, whose "Dream" speech during the March on Washington galvanized the civil rights movement, appears to emerge from a stone carved out of a mountain. The memorial also includes a 450-foot-long granite wall inscribed with 14 quotations from King's speeches and writings.
The sculpture depicts King with a stern, enigmatic gaze, wearing a jacket and tie, his arms folded and clutching papers in his left hand.
King, who was slain in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968, is the first person of color to be honored with a memorial on the Mall. It is surrounded by memorials to presidents — Thomas Jefferson to the southeast, Abraham Lincoln to the northwest, Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the south.
The postponement was just the latest in a series of delays and obstacles in the effort to honor King.
The memorial was completed 27 years after King's fraternity proposed it and 15 years after Congress authorized it in 1996. Since then, there have been skirmishes over who would sculpt King's likeness, where the granite would come from and who would profit from the mammoth $120-million fundraising effort.
More recently, organizers had to contend with a rare East Coast earthquake on Tuesday. The 5.8-magnitude temblor, centered in Virginia, caused millions of dollars in damage to the National Cathedral, forcing an interfaith service planned for Saturday to be moved to a different church.
Now, the service will be the week's final official event related to the memorial.
District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray — who attended the March on Washington — said he, too, was saddened by the postponement.
"I think it was a prudent decision," Gray said. "This gives people an opportunity now to go home and not have to face this storm."